During the 2017 regular session, lawmakers considered numerous changes to existing law governing placement of neglected children. About a dozen were enacted.
Many of the new acts set out clear legal procedures followed by attorneys for the state Children and Family Services Division, attorneys for parents both custodial and non-custodial, attorneys for other relatives of the children and attorneys for the children.
For example, Act 1111 clarifies that when a court order has been filed that terminates a person’s parental rights, the division no longer has to try to reunify that parent with the child. That person’s lawyer is relieved of the duty of representing the person, and the person is no longer to be notified of hearings and court proceedings.
The act prevents the results from past drug tests from being used to deny a parent visitation with a child. However, if the person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol during a visit, or appears to be impaired, that visit may be canceled.
Act 1116 directs child welfare officials to try to locate a non-custodial parent and grandparents when the state takes custody of a child in neglect.
Act 701 instructs juvenile courts that a non-custodial parent shall be presumed a fit parent, and other parties in the case would have to present evidence otherwise.
Act 861 creates the Commission for Parental Counsel. In neglect and abuse hearings, the commission would provide attorneys to represent parents who don’t have money to hire their own. Judges would appoint the attorneys from a list provided by the commission.
Act 994 sets up a legal procedure for people whose parental rights have been terminated, allowing them to petition the court to have those rights reinstated.
Act 994 recognizes that too many displaced children in Arkansas are never reunited with their biological parents, and also never get to live in a permanent foster home or adoptive home.
Its purpose is to add an option for permanently placing children over 14 who have been in the foster care system for many years, especially if the process of adopting them has been disrupted and halted.
Act 700 expands the legal definition of “fictive kin.” The term describes people who are not related by blood or marriage to the child in the neglect case, but who have strong and positive emotional ties to the child. Examples in the previous law included godparents, neighbors and family friends.
Act 713 creates a new legislative body to oversee child maltreatment investigations by the Division of Children and Family Services and the Crimes Against Children Division of the State Police. The oversight committee may only review completed cases, and not pending cases.
The committee’s meetings will be closed to the public and there will be penalties for members who unlawfully reveal its activities.
Act 996 revises the criteria a judge follows when permanently placing a juvenile with a parent, a custodian or a guardian. The judge may consider whether the adults maintained consistent contact with child welfare officials and how much they were involved in the writing of a case plan.