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Foster-care chief suddenly retires, citing frustration



Posted on Tuesday, October 7, 2008, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

The head of the state’s troubled foster-care system retired suddenly Monday, expressing frustration.

Pat Page, 57, who has been director of the Children and Family Services Division for two years, said it wasn’t an easy decision. She said she would no longer be in the office, and her retirement would be effective Nov. 14.

Word of her departure from the nearly $ 105, 000-a-year job came to light when she announced it with “a heavy heart” in an e-mail to the division’s advisory board.

“However, events over the past year have convinced me that my departure would be best for me and for the agency,” Page wrote in a letter dated Monday to Department of Human Services Director John Selig.

“As you know, I thought about this a year ago when I was unable to assemble the Executive Team I thought would be essential to move the division forward. But I decided to try to make it work even with those obstacles,” she wrote.

“Now that we have finally assembled the team needed — I have experienced a lack of support that makes it impossible for me to achieve the systemic change that was my goal (and yours, too, I know ).”

Child welfare is a difficult field with primarily bachelor’sdegree-holding workers trying to protect children and help families where there is child abuse and neglect, mental illness, developmental disabilities, poverty, domestic violence, and substance abuse, Page said.

“To try to do this with inadequate support — administrative, financial and other — is impossible,” she said.

Selig said child welfare in Arkansas won’t be the same without Page.

She “committed her entire career to ensuring that children are safe and loved” and “retires knowing that she made a real difference in thousands of lives,” Selig said.

Last month, Gov. Mike Beebe said “a top to bottom” review of the foster-care system was under way. Recently, serious problems surfaced, including the deaths of four children in foster care and placement of children with an abusive foster parent.

The Arkansas State Police is investigating.

Later Monday, Beebe said he had nothing to do with Page’s retirement.

“Absolutely not. I found out about it this morning, frankly,” Beebe said.

The division is part of the Department of Human Services, whose spokesman, Julie Munsell, said department officials didn’t ask Page to retire.

Page had planned to retire next June, said Munsell, who declined to speculate on whether Page decided to go ahead and get out because of the review and police investigation.

“But I do know what weighs heaviest on her mind and what keeps her up at night is keeping children safe. This is an enormous responsibility with a historically high rate of turnover,” Munsell said.

The governor said it was “easy to second-guess” the division, and he noted the difficulties of the division’s mission. The division handles cases “that are difficult to deal with under the best of circumstances — children who have been abused, neglected, in some cases molested,” Beebe said.

Page said, “Child Welfare has been my passion for over 34 years — since before we even had a Division of Children and Family Services.”

She said she appreciated Selig’s “support over the years, the opportunity you afforded me with this position and the support and assistance you offered during trying times.

“ I appreciate efforts to assist DCFS with external resources. I wish those who continue the fight nothing but the best. I wish you the best and appreciate your wisdom and leadership. Child welfare will remain my passion and I look forward to working with you in other capacities — yet to be determined.”

Page could not reached for further comment at her office Monday afternoon.

Janie Huddleston, deputy director of the Human Services Department, is replacing Page as interim director of the division, said Munsell.

Huddleston will continue to “lead that team,” Beebe said. “I have confidence in Janie. I know that she’ll do the right thing.”

The department will begin a national search for a permanent division director immediately, Munsell said.

Page’s retirement comes after lawmakers last month grilled foster-care officials, particularly regarding the state’s handling of complaints against Brian Bergthold, a foster parent in Bella Vista who was sentenced to 70 years in federal prison for producing and transporting child pornography.

Page told lawmakers that each foster-child division caseworker handles about 28 cases, which she said is about 13 too many.

The division will be asking for more money for caseworkers, but also will make its workers more accountable, Huddleston told lawmakers.

Sen. Gilbert Baker, R-Conway, chairman of the Senate’s Children and Youth Committee, said Monday that department officials indicated that Page has been a strong advocate for children and has provided a lot of good service to the state.

She has given more than 30 years of her life to being an advocate for children, Baker said. “It is a very difficult area to serve.”

Richard Huddleston, executive director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said Page has been a dedicated and caring public servant and has been a strong advocate for children and families.

“We’re here to help if needed as DHS searches for a new director and we’ll do whatever we can to get that person up to speed,” he said.

Last month, Beebe said fixing the foster-care system was “absolutely” the No. 1 focus of his administration among problems facing the state at the time.

Problems in the division came to his attention a few months ago when his administration noticed “huge increases” in the number of foster-care cases and overall child maltreatment complaints, he said.

During a legislative meeting in August, state police Special Agent Rick Newton flashed his badge and announced an investigation into the deaths of four foster children and practices of the division.

His actions at the meeting surprised and rankled state officials.

Newton is no longer on the case, but wasn’t disciplined in connection with the incident, said state police spokesman Bill Sadler.

The state police has an ongoing investigation into the deaths of foster children, Sadler said. There is no timetable for wrapping up the investigation, he said.

 Information for this article was contributed by Charlie Frago of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


2008 Oct 7