Sunday, July 19, 1998DHS worker jailed
Judge imposes 2-day sentence for contempt
Last modified at 12:46 a.m. on Sunday, July 19, 1998
By JAN GAUGHAN
Log Cabin Staff Writer
Sandi Doherty, the state Department of Human Services employee who refused for 53 days to obey a court order to restore utilities for a Faulkner County family using DHS funds, is spending this weekend in jail, serving a reduced sentence of two days for contempt.
Ms. Doherty was taken away in handcuffs Friday after a hearing in Faulkner County Chancery Court, in which Circuit-Chancery Judge Karen Baker denied a DHS motion to modify the contempt order. The motion asked that Judge Baker either allow Ms. Doherty to serve the sentence at home or allow Diane O'Connell, division director and her supervisor at DHS, to serve the sentence for her.
"I'm not sure the court has the jurisdiction to modify the order (to allow a substitute to serve a court-ordered jail term), were I inclined to do so," Judge Baker said. The state Supreme Court had mandated the reduced sentence be carried out after refusing a DHS request for a rehearing.
Besides, Judge Baker said in denying the request, "Ms. Doherty made the decision, and the decision went no higher." In several previous hearings, DHS had maintained, and Ms. Doherty confirmed, she was not acting on direct authority of anyone above her at the agency when she ignored the court order to pay for the utilities, the judge pointed out.
The DHS motion said Ms. O'Connell, as Ms. Doherty's supervisor, wanted to be the one to serve the sentence "since it appears it was the court's intention to punish the department for its policy."
Ms. Doherty had claimed, and DHS argued in its appeal to the state Supreme Court, that to follow Judge Baker's Sept. 30, 1996, order to have utilities restored to the family of a 15-year-old girl would violate DHS policy. That policy doesn't allow such expenditures except in certain instances.
But at Friday's hearing, Judge Baker repeated what the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed -- that her order was in fact in accordance with DHS policy because it fit the criteria as one of those certain instances.
The policy states that DHS may provide "family services" if those services prevent a juvenile from being removed from a parent, guardian or custodian.
"R.P.," the juvenile whose truancy case came before Judge Baker in 1996, was missing school because there was no running water or electricity in her home. The delinquency petition against her was eventually dropped, and the case was referred to FINS (Family in Need of Services). Judge Baker ordered DHS to restore the utilities so R.P. would be able to stay in the home with her mother and attend school regularly.
Ms. Doherty's contention -- which was endorsed by DHS spokesman Joe Quinn and Gov. Mike Huckabee in 1997 -- was the agency should not have to pay the utility bills out of its own coffers because that would deplete too much of its annual allotment for the county. As area manager for the agency's Children and Family Services Division, Ms. Doherty directed local employees not to pay the bills with DHS money.
After 53 days had passed in which DHS remained out of compliance with the court order, and after Ms. Doherty failed to appear at two show-cause hearings, Judge Baker found her in contempt. She was sentenced to a day in jail for each day R.P.'s family had been without court-ordered assistance from DHS.
The state Supreme Court rejected DHS' appeal of the original ruling and the contempt order but reduced Ms. Doherty's jail term to two days. Two justices who concurred in the ruling but dissented in part with the contempt order wrote that they felt Ms. Doherty was being made a scapegoat for the agency and that her superiors at DHS should have been held more accountable.
The request by DHS for a rehearing by the Supreme Court was denied July 9, and the mandate to carry out the sentence was delivered to Judge Baker on Thursday.
On Friday, Ms. Doherty's hands shook slightly but she otherwise showed little emotion as she removed her jewelry and hugged several co-workers in the courtroom while bailiffs stood by to take her to the Faulkner County Detention Center for booking.
She refused to comment to reporters.
After ordering her to begin serving the sentence immediately, Judge Baker said anyone tempted to feel sympathy for Ms. Doherty should remember "her circumstances in serving this sentence in the Faulkner County Detention Center will be considerably better" than the 16-year-old juvenile enjoyed during the 53 days DHS was out of compliance with the order.
Ms. O'Connell, who was not in her present position in 1996, attended the hearing. She said simply, "I've said all I can say," as she left the courthouse.
Ms. O'Connell has reportedly maintained in previous statements to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that Ms. Doherty was forced into a situation where she had to either obey DHS policy and go to jail or obey the court order and be fired.
"That's an interesting statement to make," Judge Baker said after the hearing, noting she had read the statement in the newspaper with some surprise.
A 1991 state Supreme Court decision in Arkansas Department of Human Services vs. Clark held that a juvenile court's orders do not have to comply with DHS policy. DHS is required to comply with such an order unless and until it is successfully appealed, the high court held.
"The Supreme Court did answer that question once and for all" in 1991, Judge Baker maintained.
Judge Baker said she has been unable to account for Ms. Doherty's actions or the position of DHS.
"I'm not sure what motivated her decision," she said of Ms. Doherty. "But I had no choice -- this was disobedience and defiance of a court order." Had she been able to determine that the decision to disobey the order went higher than Ms. Doherty, she would have sought jail time for those people too, the judge said.
As for DHS policy, "They said they'd be perfectly willing to place her (R.P.) in foster care, which would've cost, they admitted, much more than paying the (utility) bills," she said.
Their argument concerning the money was "bureaucratic doublespeak," Judge Baker added.
Contacted after the hearing, Quinn said DHS was releasing an official statement saying the agency is "disappointed a career employee has been sent to jail for the weekend."
While DHS respects the rulings of all the state's courts, the agency wished to express "our profound support for Sandi Doherty," the statement said.
As to whether that expression of support means DHS ultimately believes Ms. Doherty acted rightly in ignoring the court order, Quinn said he wouldn't comment further but would "let the hearing speak for itself."
Attorney Lynn Plemmons, who as former juvenile attorney represented R.P. during the 1996 proceedings, said after Friday's hearing he is pleased the contempt sentence was carried out.
"DHS may think at times that they are king of the state of Arkansas," Plemmons said. "What Judge Baker and the Arkansas Supreme Court showed them is that even the king has to obey the laws of the land."
Ms. Doherty is scheduled to be released at 3:30 p.m. today.
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