Justin Harris: Former legislator sympathetic to criticism of DHS
By Max Brantley
The ongoing story about Rep. Justin Harris' adoption and "rehoming" children in the home of a child molester has stirred a response from many who, like Harris, think the state Department of Human Services bears some culpability not only in his case but in others.
The giant agency, which oversees billions in federal spending, is no stranger to attention and controversy. Its work covers some of the most vulnerable people in some of the most vexing of circumstances. The caseload is huge and, for the most part, never-ending. Human beings often must make judgment calls on difficult cases. Those affected often differ in opinion on the wisdom of those decisions.
Still, questions about efficiency arise. One such complaint — small in the scheme of human needs, but perhaps telling on agency responsiveness — came to me yesterday from former legislator Jimmy Jeffress of Crossett, who detailed in a letter to DHS Director John Selig the failure of DHS to perform a simple task — complete a necessary part of a background check so he could be considered for a public teaching job.
Jeffress' letter follows. He says he's never had a response from DHS officials — Selig or Cecile Blucker, head of the Division of Children and Family Services, to whom the letter was copiedt. He also comments that he's sympathetic to Harris' claim that he'd been bullied by someone at DHS. " The level of hubris and ignorance at DHS is breathtaking," Jeffress said.
January 9, 2015
Mr. John Selig, Director
Arkansas Department of Human Services
Donaghey Plaza, PO Box 1437
Little Rock, AR 72203
Dear Mr. Selig,
It has been a while since you and I have had the opportunity or reason for interaction with one another, but I want to begin by stating to you what I said many times to my colleagues while I was in the General Assembly. You were a bureaucrat who was always open and available to help and assist me with my needs as they arose. You stood out over many others with whom I dealt during my legislative days because of your availability and temperament. I was always glad to be able to work with a person of your talents.
I know that you are very busy at this time with the start of the new legislative session, so I will be as brief as possible. Please feel free to pass this on to anyone in the department to whom you wish to see it.
The first week of last October, I was offered a teaching job with the Hamburg Public Schools when a choral music position suddenly became open. The Hamburg Board of Education offered me the job and needed me to get licensed immediately (my license to teach had expired since my retirement.) I made application to the Arkansas Department of Education for my Lifetime Teaching Certificate and sent in all of the requisite paperwork along with two personal checks to pay for the background checks (one to the Arkansas State Police and the other to your agency for the Central Registry.) To make a long story short, I missed out on the job because I could not get everything completed in a timely manner.
I had Senator Eddie Cheatham call the Department of Education and check on matters and he was told that it often took a couple of weeks or more for the background checks to be completed and the license to be issued. Two weeks turned into a month, a month turned into two, etc., etc, and I missed out on being hired. Around the second week or so in December, I called the Arkansas State Police and was told that my background check had been approved some time prior and that everything was in the hands of the Department of Education. I called the Department of Education and was told that they were still waiting on the Department of Human Services to okay the Central Registry background check. I called the Central Registry and was told that the lady who does the background checks for them (a lady named Phyllis) was on vacation and that she would not be back in the office until the Monday after Christmas.
So, early on the Monday morning after Christmas, December 29, I called Phyllis, identified myself, and explained that I wanted to check on the status of my Central Registry background check. I explained to her that the Department of Education was waiting on it in order to issue me my Lifetime Teaching License. I got excuse after excuse, ya-da, ya-da, ya-da from her on why the background check had not been completed…basically that she was way behind and had not had time to complete it. She asked for my social security number so that she could check “the system” to try to determine where I was in the process. I did so, but she could not locate my application.
Suddenly, her demeanor changed. She told me that the system gets purged every so often and that she had no record that I had ever made an application for a background check and that I would have to reapply and either remit a new check for payment (or to submit proof that it had already been paid.) My cancelled check showed that it had been originally been deposited by DHS in the State Treasury on October 15, some two and a half months earlier.) She was rude and made remarks to me that I found very offensive coming from someone in her position. I hung up the phone, called the switchboard, and asked to speak to a supervisor in that division. The gentleman to whom I then spoke was just the opposite of Phyllis, very courteous, helpful, and willing to explain what they could do to expedite a quick resolution to my problem. I sent him the information he requested and I received my teaching certificate within a week or so.
Since all of this transpired, I have been told by many people that they, too, have experienced problems in getting their Central Registry background checks completed in a timely manner. A person at one of the Education Co-ops said that this has been a problem for them for years. Another person at the University level told me that their students have always had very slow service and similar problems from the Central Registry office.
I am writing this to you and sending a copy to Ms. Cecile Blucker and the folks at the Department of Education so that you will all be informed on what the public is getting in the way of service from the Central Registry office. During the 16 years I served in the Legislature, both in the Arkansas House of Representatives and the Arkansas Senate, I dealt with many public servants, but never did I run across anyone like Phyllis.
Thanks for your time in this regard. I really do appreciate your service and dedication to the people of this state and I pray that you will have a good legislative session this spring.