LITTLE ROCK - A former state Department of Human Services chief said Monday that he met almost weekly with Gov. Mike Huckabee for nearly a year without telling Huckabee about allegations that children in state custody were physically abused.
Lee Frazier said he did not consider such matters pressing because few youths were involved in abuse allegations and officials at the Division of Youth Services were taking aggressive action to correct the problems.
What he found alarming and what prompted sweeping changes, Frazier said, were conditions he saw when he visited a center where juvenile delinquents were kept while awaiting assignment to detention units for rehabilitation.
"What I found there sickened me," Frazier told a panel of legislators about an unannounced trip he made April 16 to DYS' Central Arkansas Observation and Assessment Center in North Little Rock.
Frazier said he saw children handling raw sewage that had backed up into the facility after a hard rain. He said he saw other substandard conditions, including a lack of running water, showers or recreational facilities in some areas, as well as a lack of dining or medical accommodations.
"I became more alarmed than anything ... concerning a slap or even an alleged abuse to a particular child," he said. "What I observed told me that we had systematic abuse to every juvenile that came to that center. That is the one thing that grieved me greatly."
A week later, Huckabee acknowledged system wide mismanagement and abuse at DYS facilities and announced a top-to-bottom shakeup of the division.
Frazier said at the time he questioned three DYS officials and former officials about the problem and was inclined to fire them after they said the conditions were acceptable so long as the juveniles were properly attired.
However, the only one fired at the time was Lorance Johnson, who six weeks earlier had taken over as acting DYS director after 20 years at DHS.
Frazier said he fired Johnson, a family friend, because her answers showed she did not have the necessary vision to make changes.
Frazier had earlier promoted Ruth Whitney from DYS director to director of DHS county operations, and he said DHS lawyers advised him not to fire assistant DYS Director Lloyd Warford, whom Frazier said had earlier threatened a civil rights lawsuit when Johnson was chosen over him as acting DYS director.
Johnson is black. Warford is white.
Frazier claimed Whitney and Warford tried to alert Huckabee to allegations of abuse because of what they believed to be an impending news article about physical abuse of children within DYS that he said they feared would make them look bad.
He claimed the two were trying to portray themselves as whistleblowers to save their jobs.
Still, members of two legislative panels investigating who knew what and when about the abuses grilled Frazier about apparent inconsistencies in his testimony.
For instance, Frazier denied to a state police investigator that he had been briefed on but had not seen a preliminary report in which Whitney and Warford detailed evidence of widespread physical abuses of juveniles at the Observation and Assessment Center.
However, Frazier testified Monday that he read the report and returned it to Whitney at her request.
He said he had been mixed up when he talked to the investigator because there apparently existed several versions of the Whitney-Warford report and he wasn't sure which he had seen.
Frazier also said he had recommended in April that the North Little Rock facility be closed as an observation and assessment center but used for some other purpose.
Huckabee ordered the facility shut down June 19, without telling Frazier, a day after three lawmakers made an unannounced late-night visit to the facility.
Within days, Frazier announced his resignation as DHS director, effective July 1 - a year after taking the job.