Four bills filed on Friday by state Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) propose significant changes in the Arkansas child welfare system that would generally give more legal protections to parents accused of child maltreatment, along with other relatives, noncustodial parents and “fictive kin.”
Among the proposed changes is the creation of a process by which parents who previously had their parental rights terminated could have them legally reinstated, if agreed to by a court.
Currently, Arkansas has a record number of children in foster care. Last month, a plan for internal reforms was announced at the state’s child welfare agency, the Division of Children and Family Services (which is part of the Department of Human Services, or DHS). But DCFS is only one part of the child welfare system. Most of this new legislation is aimed at redefining the juvenile court system’s role in adjudicating cases in which children are removed from their parents’ custody due to alleged abuse or neglect.
Senate Bill 15, the broadest bill, does several things. (The following is not a complete list.) It would place certain requirements on ad litem attorneys, the lawyers from the Administrative Office of the Courts who are intended to represent “the best interest of the child” in court; among other things, SB 15 would remove the ability of ad litems to file a dependency-neglect petition, meaning only DCFS or law enforcement could do so. If a child is removed from his or her parent but there is a noncustodial parent who can take the child, SB 15 would require temporary placement with the noncustodial parent — rather than placed into foster care — unless they are proven unfit. Before terminating parental rights, a court would be required to consider factors such as the age and health of the child, the likelihood of the child finding a permanent placement (such as adoption) and more.
The bill would also place greater legal weight on the claim of relatives and “fictive kin” — close family friends — who may want to take custody of a child that has been removed from his or her parents. Arkansas has been criticized (including by this newspaper) for its low rate of “kinship placements” compared to other states, although DCFS has made recent improvements in this area. Under current law, DCFS already must give “preferential consideration” to relative caregivers. SB 15 would make it the agency’s duty to “conduct an immediate investigation to locate” grandparents, other relatives and fictive kin, and to keep a record of its efforts to do so. Should a court deny placement with a relative or fictive kin, the court would be required to “make specific findings of fact in writing regarding the considerations given to the relative or fictive kin and the reasons the placement was denied.”
Finally, SB 15 would create a process to reinstate parental rights after termination. It outlines the conditions under which such a reinstatement would be allowed and establishes a timeline for court proceedings, including a temporary order that could be reversed if the parent failed to meet certain requirements. The law would be retroactive, meaning some Arkansas parents who have lost their parental rights in the past could theoretically get them reinstated. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are about nine states that currently allow a reinstatement of parental rights under a variety of circumstances, including California, New York, Oklahoma and Louisiana.
SB 16 would allow legislators, “in order to conduct a review of agency procedure,” to obtain and review child maltreatment investigations conducted by DCFS or the Arkansas State Police (that agency’s Crimes Against Children Division conducts investigations into allegations of severe child abuse). It also would authorize legislators to request information “concerning unlawful activity of an … employee” related to child maltreatment investigations, perhaps a nod to this recent news regarding an employee of the CACD’s child maltreatment hotline.
In the event of DCFS taking a child from a parent because of an immediate safety concern, SB 17 would allow the agency to comply with the parent’s request to place the child temporarily with a relative or fictive kin if the agency determines it is appropriate. (Imagine, say, a mother arrested for drunk driving whose son is in the car. The mother’s behavior has posed a safety risk for the child, clearly. Should she be allowed to specify a person — her sister, say — to come pick up the boy and take him into temporary custody? Currently, the answer is no; this bill intends to give the agency discretion in such cases.)
Finally, SB 18 would require the court to appoint counsel to represent a parent in a termination of parental rights hearing at the parent’s request (even if he or she is not indigent). The court must inform the parent of this option. SB 18 would create a funding stream for the Administrative Office of the Courts “to be used exclusively for parent counsel for termination of parental rights proceedings.”
The legislation is co-sponsored by Reps. Kim Hammer of Benton and Micky Gates of Hot Springs, both Republicans.
Clark is also the sponsor of SB 8, which would allow a legislative committee to hear and discuss confidential information pertaining to a completed child maltreatment investigation under certain circumstances.