On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary committee approved a bill by Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) that would allow a limited number of Arkansas legislators to jointly review closed child maltreatment investigations as part of a new oversight body that would also include various stakeholders in the child welfare system.
Any information related to a child maltreatment case — including whether or not such a case even exists — is generally closed to the public to protect the confidentiality of children. Individual legislators are already exempt from that prohibition and are able to access child maltreatment records. However, they are not allowed to discuss those cases in legislative committee, because committee meetings must be open to the public.
That restriction has been a point of frustration for Clark, who as former chair of the legislature’s Joint Performance Review committee was often a sharp critic of how child maltreatment investigations are conducted. In Arkansas, those investigations are performed by one of two agencies — the Division of Children and Family Services at the Department of Human Services or (in cases of severe physical or sexual abuse) the Crimes Against Children Division of the Arkansas State Police.
Clark’s Senate Bill 556 creates the Child Maltreatment Investigation Oversight Committee, an 18-member panel that would include seven legislators. The chair of the committee — to be selected from the legislative membership — would select closed child maltreatment cases for the panel to evaluate and review. The committee could not look at cases that are still open.
The meetings of the Child Maltreatment Investigation Oversight Committee would be closed and exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Unlike a number of other restrictions on the FOIA proposed this session, however, the bill would not curtail public access to existing documents (since child maltreatment records are already exempt from the FOIA). The committee would be required to submit its findings and recommendations in an annual report to the legislature, with identifying information related to specific cases omitted.
The chairs of the House and Senate committees on Aging, Children and Youth would be included, along with two legislators each designated by the chairs. The seventh would be a current or former legislator appointed by the governor. The other members of the committee would be as follows: The director of DCFS, the commander of CACD, a representative of the governor’s office, a judge or justice, a parent counsel attorney, an attorney ad litem, an attorney who represents parents in child welfare cases who is not contracted by the state, a representative of a Child Advocacy Center, a parent previously designated as a subject of a child maltreatment report, a current foster parent and an adult who was previously a foster child.
SB 556 also allows a legislator to disclose information regarding a child maltreatment case to another legislator.
The bill passed out of the committee on a voice vote and next goes to the full Senate.