CHILD ADVOCATE: Arkansas first lady Susan Hutchinson Twitter/Michael Poore

Arkansas lawmakers on a House committee voted to hand over some of the state’s child abuse services budget and oversight to Child Advocacy Centers of Arkansas, a private nonprofit where both the bill’s sponsors and our state’s first lady hold leadership roles.

The bill passed on a voice vote, making it hard to know who voted for it and who voted against. Reps. Ashley Hudson (D-Little Rock), Denise Garner (D-Fayetteville), Joy Springer (D-Little Rock) voted no.

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UPDATE: The legislation was easily approved in the House Tuesday afternoon, 74-11, with 10 not voting.

Susan Hutchinson, wife of Governor Hutchinson and a member of the Child Advocacy Centers of Arkansas Board of Directors, was on hand for the entire two-hour hearing at the House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Charlene Fite (R-Van Buren), is on the organization’s advisory council, along with Sen. Jonathan Dismang, the bill’s co-sponsor.

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“If you know the first lady, you’ll know this issue is close to her heart,” Fite said. “She has been a champion for children, and I’m happy to have her support and the governor’s support.”

Susan Hutchinson worked hard to get this bill passed, reportedly calling all 20 members of the committee, three of whom are Democrats, over the weekend to ask for their vote.

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House Bill 1499 essentially strips oversight and budgeting responsibility for the coordinators of county-level team response to child abuse allegations from the Arkansas Child Abuse, Rape and Domestic Violence Commission at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Under this bill, those responsibilities would go to the Child Advocacy Centers of Arkansas, a private nonprofit with 17 locations in the state and part of a national organization. Funded with both public and private money, Child Advocacy Centers of Arkansas is already a player on the county-level teams that encompass law enforcement, prosecutors, counselors, medical examiners and others who work  together to help care for abuse victims. This bill would move the Child Advocacy Centers of Arkansas from its current role as team member and install them as the coach.

letter

Gov. Hutchinson sent this Feb. 23 letter to the UAMS commission that currently oversees the state’s child abuse response. He and First Lady Susan Hutchinson want a change in the system.

A few legislators asked for examples of problems with the current system. Proponents offered few concrete examples. But Jennifer Long, executive director of the Children’s Protection Center in Pulaski County, said the UAMS commission provides little guidance and oversight.

And Child Advocacy Centers of Arkansas Executive Director Elizabeth Pulley said the new plan outlined in HB1499 is based on a national model followed in other states. She said she met with the UAMS commission a few times and that they didn’t seem to have a plan in place for moving forward.

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“We want to thank [UAMS Chancellor] Cam Patterson and UAMS for staying neutral on this bill,” she said. Neither Patterson nor anyone from the UAMS commission was on hand to testify Monday.

The hearing drew a surprisingly big crowd, with 19 people signed up to speak on it. Child Advocacy Centers of Arkansas staff made up most of the supporters, while the majority of opponents were prosecutors and “MDT coordinators,” facilitators of the local multi-disciplinary teams (MDTs) that work together in child abuse cases to secure treatment for victims and convictions for perpetrators. Those MDT coordinators that currently fall under the management of the UAMS task force would instead report to the Child Advocacy Centers of Arkansas under HB1499.

Mississippi County MDT coordinator Sarah Ramsey said rural counties will suffer if HB1499 passes. “As a mother and survivor of child abuse and a victim advocate, I can say that this bill is not in best interest of our state,” she said. “In my opinion, this bill is not about the children. It’s about the money.”

The UAMS commission that currently oversees the state’s 38 multi-disciplinary team coordinators “has made the MDT program what it is today: a well-oiled machine,” Ramsey said. There is no Child Advocacy Center (CAC) in her county, but the organization is part of her response team, she said. If there are gaps, CAC should identify them and work as part of the team to fix them, Ramsey said.

Multiple people who work within the current child abuse response system said Child Advocacy Centers are a valued part of the system, but that they shouldn’t be put in charge of it all.

Would the national model championed by supporters of HB1499 not be helpful, Rep. Springer asked Ramsey.

“To be honest, I don’t care what the national model is,” Ramsey answered. “I care about the state of Arkansas and our kids. I want to see what the model is for us, not for another state.” A number of people echoed Ramsey’s testimony, saying that the current system provides flexibility to address needs in both rural and urban areas.

Shane West, an MDT coordinator who works for the Conway County Sheriff’s Department, said he opposes changing the current structure. He said the UAMS commission’s leadership serves his county well, and that putting Child Advocacy Centers in charge of the state’s MDT coordinators will endanger a well-balanced system.

Rumors that this bill will eliminate local teams and funnel all services for child abuse victims through one of the state’s 17 Child Advocacy Centers are not true, Fite said. She said that of the state’s 38 MDT coordinators, 13 support the bill and seven are neutral.

Benton County Prosecutor Nathan Smith, speaking as a member of the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said none of his fellow members supports HB1499, although one or two are neutral on it. He noted that almost everyone testifying both for and against the bill is part of the current child abuse response team in the state, and that they all have children’s best interests at heart. But Smith said he trusts the local teams who tell him the proposed new system simply won’t work for them. Prosecutors offered what they thought was a good compromise, he said, to remove Child Advocacy Centers of Arkansas from oversight by the UAMS commission and let them function independently, while leaving MDT coordinators under the commission’s management. But the idea was rejected.

Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville) asked Smith what it would hurt to shift management to Child Advocacy Centers of Arkansas.

Relationships are key in this delicate work of coordinating law enforcement officers, prosecutors, child welfare advocates, medical experts and other members of these teams, Smith said. And MDTs have built up relationships in ways they think work well.

“We love our CACs. They do amazing work,” said Teresa Howell, a prosecutor for Hot Springs and Grant counties. But she likes her current local system, in which the MDT coordinator is someone who works within the prosecutor’s office. Having local control to hammer out a system that works for them could be lost if CAC is empowered to call all the shots, she said.

Supporters of the bill included Sebastian County sheriff Hobe Runion, who favors the uniformity HB1499 would bring, and a child abuse victim who testified about the invaluable help she got at a Child Advocacy Center.

Prosecutor Jeff Phillips said he understands that many supporters of the bill want to put the priorities of convicting perpetrators and treating abused children on equal footing. But since prosecutors are clearly part of this process, he wondered why he and other prosecutors in the state didn’t learn about this bill until a couple of months ago. “If we’re going to be team players, we need to be invited to the team meetings. The fact that we haven’t had that opportunity is a little bit troubling,” he said.

Prosecutor Dan Turner of Arkadelphia said he worries that under HB1499, his current MDT coordinator, a woman who has worked on child abuse issues for three decades, could be replaced by someone the Child Advocacy Centers of Arkansas chooses. “I see all these people here on the front lines trying to get justice for children. I’m not speaking in opposition of this bill lightly, especially considering where it comes from,” prosecutor Ryan Cooper said, glancing over his shoulder at Susan Hutchinson. “Change and progress are not the same thing. I would urge you to take a moment of pause.”

Child Advocacy Centers of Arkansas currently gets about $1.5 million in state money annually for its work, Executive Director Pulley said.

It’s not uncommon for state funding to be administered through private nonprofits. It is unusual for specific nonprofits to be named in legislation. The bill now goes to the full House for a vote.