UPDATE: House committee passes bill handing over child abuse money, oversight to non-profit organization where First Lady Susan Hutchinson sits on the board

Arkansas lawmakers on a House committee voted to hand over part of the state’s budget and oversight of child abuse services to Arkansas Children’s Advocacy Centers, a private non-profit organization where the sponsors of Bill and the First Lady of Our State occupy leadership roles.

The bill was passed by voice vote, making it difficult to know who voted for and who voted against. Representatives Ashley Hudson (D-Little Rock), Denise Garner (D-Fayetteville), Joy Springer (D-Little Rock) voted no.

UPDATE: Legislation was easily approved in the House on Tuesday afternoon, 74-11, with 10 non-voters.

Susan Hutchinson, wife of Governor Hutchinson and member of the Arkansas Children’s Advocacy Centers Board of Directors, was on site 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 board, along with Bill’s co-sponsor Senator Jonathan Dismang.

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

Susan Hutchinson worked hard to get this bill passed, calling all 20 committee members, including three Democrats, over the weekend to demand their votes.

Bill 1499 Essentially removes responsibility for monitoring and budgeting from the county-level team response coordinators to child abuse allegations from the Arkansas Commission on Abuse, Rape and Domestic Violence from the ‘University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Under this bill, those responsibilities would fall to the Child Advocacy Centers of Arkansas, a private, non-profit organization with 17 locations across the state and part of a national organization. Funded by both public and private funds, the Child Advocacy Centers of Arkansas are already part of county-level teams that include law enforcement, prosecutors, counselors, forensic pathologists and others who work together to help. to care for victims of abuse. This bill would move the Child Advocacy Centers of Arkansas from their current role as a member of the team and install them as a coach.

Governor Hutchinson sent this February 23 letter to the UAMS commission which is currently overseeing the state’s response to child abuse. He and First Lady Susan Hutchinson want a change in the system.

A few lawmakers asked for examples of problems with the current system. The promoters offered few concrete examples. Corn Jennifer Long, executive director of the Child Protection Center in Pulaski County, said the UAMS commission provides little advice and oversight.

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

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

The audience drew a surprisingly large crowd, with 19 people signing up to talk about it. Arkansas Children’s Advocacy Center staff made up most of the supporters, while the majority of opponents were prosecutors and “MDT coordinators,” facilitators of local multidisciplinary teams (MDTs) who work together in cases of abuse. child abuse to ensure treatment for victims and convictions of the guilty. The MDT coordinators who currently report to the management of the UAMS working group would instead report to the Arkansas Children’s Advocacy Centers under HB1499.

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

The UAMS commission that currently oversees the state’s 38 multidisciplinary team coordinators “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 its response team, she said. If there are any shortcomings, the ACC should identify them and work as a team to correct them, Ramsey said.

Many people who work within the current child abuse response system have said that child advocates are an important part of the system, but they shouldn’t be in charge of everything.

Wouldn’t the national model championed by supporters of HB1499 help, Rep. Springer asked Ramsey.

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

Shane West, an MDT coordinator who works for the Conway County Sheriff’s Department, said he opposed changing the current structure. He said the UAMS commission leadership serves his county well and that giving child advocacy centers the responsibility of state MDT coordinators would endanger a well-balanced system.

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

Benton County Attorney Nathan Smith, Speaking as a member of the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said none of his fellow members supported HB1499, although one or two were neutral on this. He noted that almost everyone testifying for both for and against the bill is part of the state’s current child abuse response team, and they all care deeply about it. best interests of the children. But Smith said he trusts local teams who tell him the proposed new system just won’t work for them. Prosecutors offered what they thought was a good compromise, he said, to remove Arkansas children’s advocacy centers from the oversight of the UAMS commission and let them operate independently, while leaving MDT coordinators under the direction of the commission. But the idea was rejected.

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

Relationships are essential in this delicate job of coordinating law enforcement officials, prosecutors, child protection advocates, medical experts and other members of those teams, Smith said. And EMDs have built relationships in a way that they believe is working well.

“We love our CACs. They do an amazing job, ”said Teresa Howell, a district attorney 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 develop a system that works for them could be lost if the ACC is empowered to decide everything, she said.

Supporters of the bill included the Sebastian County Sheriff Hobe Meeting, who promotes the consistency that HB1499 would bring, and a victim of child abuse who testified to the invaluable help she received at a child advocacy center.

Attorney Jeff phillips said he understands that many supporters of the bill want to put the priorities of sentencing perpetrators and treating abused children on an equal footing. But given that prosecutors are clearly a part of this process, he wondered why he and other state prosecutors had only heard of this bill a few months ago. “If we want to be team players, we have to be invited to team meetings. The fact that we didn’t have this opportunity is a bit disturbing, ”he said.

Attorney Dan Turner Arkadelphia said he was concerned that under HB1499, his current MDT coordinator, a woman who has worked on child abuse issues for three decades, could be replaced by someone chosen by the Children’s Advocacy Centers of the ‘Arkansas. “I see all these people here on the front lines trying to get justice for children. I do not speak lightly against this bill, especially given its origin ”, declared the prosecutor. Ryan cooper said, glancing over her shoulder at Susan Hutchinson. “Change and progress are not the same thing. I urge you to take a moment’s break.

Arkansas children’s advocacy centers currently receive about $ 1.5 million in state funding each year for their work, executive director Pulley said.

It is not uncommon for state funding to be administered by private, not-for-profit organizations. It is unusual for specific non-profit organizations to be named in legislation. The bill now goes to the entire House for a vote.

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