Alamo case major test for state DHS

Associated Press/September 29, 2008

Little Rock - By taking custody of six girls from an evangelist's compound in southwest Arkansas in a sexual abuse investigation, the state's Department of Human Services will get a shot at redemption in the eyes of legislators and others who have criticized the agency's handling of other foster care cases.

The agency took temporary custody of six girls from Tony Alamo's compound at Fouke after a Sept. 20 raid by state and federal agents in a sexual abuse investigation. The one-time rock promoter and street preacher was arrested Thursday by the FBI while leaving a Flagstaff, Ariz., hotel, on charges of violating the Mann Act, usually used in interstate prostitution cases.

With the Alamo case, DHS takes a high-profile test of its abilities as it faces increased scrutiny over the deaths of four foster children and the conviction of a Bella Vista man who admitted having sexual contact with boys the state placed in his care.

Legislators say they're taking a close look at DHS and the state's foster-care system and grilled agency officials over the case of Brian John Bergthold, who pleaded guilty this month to a sexual assault charge and pleaded guilty last year to producing and distributing child pornography. The state had placed 30 boys in Bergthold's home over a two-year period.

A review of the state's foster-care system was already under way before the deaths of the four children, but has been accelerated because of them, Gov. Mike Beebe's office says.

DHS Director John Selig said he thinks the Alamo case will give the state the chance to show a success story in taking children in its care.

"You generally don't get coverage in the cases that go OK. It's normally the ones that don't do well," Selig said. "It's not redemption, but it is a reminder to some folks that we're actually out there every day and we've got people around the state making difficult decisions."

State officials should be wary of the spotlight the Alamo case may put them under. Selig said the raid on a polygamist compound in Texas earlier this year was on the minds of DHS officials as they considered how to approach Alamo's ministry.

Texas authorities raided a ranch run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in April, looking for evidence of underage marriages and abuse involving sect girls. Texas child welfare authorities initially put all 440 children at the ranch in foster care but were forced to return them by a Texas Supreme Court ruling that found evidence showed abuse in only a handful of cases.

"It's certainly something we were cognizant of," Selig said. "We were aware early on that we needed to look at these children on a case-by-case basis and not look at Alamo as a group or a geographic area as a whole and say all children in that area are going to be treated the same ... So that was in our minds, in part, what happened in Texas."

Long before authorities raided Alamo's compound, DHS officials say they were already making leadership changes, including moving about a dozen jobs in the family and children services division's central office to the field to improve service to children and families.

Beebe said last week he thinks the agency is making the changes it needs and said he had spoken with workers at the division.

"I told them I understand how difficult their job was. It has to be a high priority for us to be able to do all we can with additional resources, additional training, additional oversight whatever it takes and they're doing that internally ... in that total overall review of how to make it better," Beebe said.

As fall budget hearings approach, the agency's work in the Alamo case will likely be a test of the changes that Beebe has put into place to make it more accountable.

"I think this will be an opportunity with new staff in place, new procedures in place to exercise some of that directive from the governor," said Sen. Gilbert Baker, R-Conway, chair of the Senate's Children and Youth Committee.

But finding out how much has changed may take some work. The hurdles of breaking the secrecy DHS says state and federal law imposes on them were put on display earlier this month after lawmakers were briefly given documents on the Bergthold case.

The documents, which included e-mails with DHS officials and the Bella Vista man's assessment as a potential foster parent, were handed back over and heavily redacted after attorneys warned they would disclose confidential information about foster families.

Rep. Donna Hutchinson, R-Bella Vista, who has said the state's foster care system is in "disarray," said she's looking for signs before the Legislature returns in January that DHS is improving. But she notes that, ultimately, oversight responsibility for the agency rests with Beebe.

"The truth is, the governor is the CEO of the state and he makes sure the agencies are run correctly and properly," Hutchinson said. "It's Governor Beebe who will have to wake up every day and ask 'What is happening with foster care?"'

DeMillo covers Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press.

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