West Memphis Police Donald Oaks
yesterday spoke to KATV about the Department of Human Services’ failure to respond to a police report of an abandoned baby in a restaurant parking lot.

He said he’d earlier been dissatisfied with state response on a five-year-old taken to a hospital. That led to a meeting with DHS in September and the chief said he’d hoped the situation had been improved. But this happened Wednesday.

He once again tried to call DHS after parents, who police say were under the influence, left their 2-month-old in the Krystal Burgers parking lot. The baby was nearly hit by a passing car and was found with a pill in the baby carrier.

Police responded and immediately called DHS after finding the baby. For a while, Oaks said it seemed likely the baby would go home with him.

“Police don’t place children, the Department of Human Services places children,” said Oaks.

Eventually, an officer’s girlfriend knew someone who knew the child’s grandmother. Authorities felt comfortable enough to leave the baby with the grandmother, but unlike a DHS placement, there are no strings attached, meaning, the parents could go get the baby back after making bail.

“We’re so fortunate that this child is safe tonight, but that’s not because the Department of Human Services has done anything,” said Oaks.

Perhaps because there was no way around it — or perhaps because DHS has heard legislators’ and others’  complaints about a lack of accountability in a refusal to discuss cases by citing child confidentiality rules – DHS did admit a lapse in this case and offered a detailed explanation. A statement given KATV:

There was no willful disregard of calls from the West Memphis Police Department. It was an unfortunately confluence of events that resulted in police not getting a returned call for two and half hours yesterday. We certainly never want law enforcement to wait that long and understand how frustrating that would be. We want to do everything we can to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

We have been working to address the police chief’s concerns. In fact, a few months ago, our staff sat down with West Memphis police and we jointly developed a communication process that outlined who to call when DCFS is needed. The plan included numbers for four employees so that police would have options if the first person was unavailable. In this particular situation, the first person was on leave, the next two people in line were in an interview together when police tried to call them and the last person, the Area Director, did not have cell service at the time the call was placed to her. No messages were left on the phones, which is why workers did not returned the missed calls. However, the police chief did reach and speak to the Area Director about two and half hours after the first call was placed. The head of DCFS also called the chief an hour later to assure him we’d address the issue and we are committed to doing so. It is clear in this particular situation the communication process we jointly developed did not work so we are looking at alternative ways to ensure the police department can connect with DCFS whenever needed. And we will continue to work hard to show that we are trying to be good partners with law enforcement.

I wrote yesterday about the state’s historic use of child confidentiality law to prevent discussions about circumstances such as these. Regrettable as this incident was, DHS has made a showing of what happened. That may be progress.