Saturday, March 24, 2007

Cabinet secrecy stalls child protection reforms

Records release on a child's death varies by state
In Kentucky, youth welfare officials make decision
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, March 22, 2007, pg. A1.

At least 12 states have passed laws requiring that child protection records be released when a child dies from neglect or abuse.

But Kentucky, which in 2004 had the fifth-highest rate of children dying of abuse and neglect in the United States, isn't one of them.When a child dies from abuse or neglect in Kentucky, state child protection officials decide whether to release the information on a case-by-case basis.

In the case of Michaela Watkins, a Clark County 10-year-old whose father and step-mother have been charged with murder, the answer is no.

Michaela was found dead in the couple's apartment, and relatives have said that police and state social workers had previous contact with the girl and her family, including three other children in the home.

So far, the state has declined to release any records in Michaela's case, citing an ongoing police investigation and saying the confidentiality of Michaela's siblings should be protected. The state says it is conducting an internal investigation of its contact with Michaela.

Kentucky Youth Advocates, a Louisville-based child advocacy group, favors opening state social service records after child fatalities, said KYA Deputy Director Lacey McNary. The hard part, she said, is in deciding when that should happen.

"We want to ensure transparency, but we want to make sure that police can do their job," McNary said.

Under federal law, states such as Kentucky that receive federal child abuse prevention grants must have a provision in place to release state social service information when a child dies. But the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act does not require the release of information in all cases or specify the information that can be released, said Steve Christian, a spokesman for the Colorado-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

The national average of children dying from abuse and neglect was 2.03 deaths per 100,000 children in 2004, the most recent year for which national data was available. In 2004, Kentucky's rate was 3.88. Only Indiana, Washington D.C., Oklahoma and Georgia had higher rates.

Indiana, which had the nation's highest rate of deaths from child abuse and neglect in 2004, has passed a law that requires a judge to open files in child death cases after receiving a request from the public or an agency. Within 30 days of a request being made to open a record, the court in the Indiana county where the child died must exclude identifying information not relevant to the circumstances of the child's death.

Antoinette Lasky, a pediatrician who heads Indiana's Child Fatality Review Board, said the child fatality open-records law followed high-profile deaths of children in the custody of Indiana's child protection system.

Lasky said that, because each judge is allowed to decide what material to redact, the information that the public sees can vary widely from case to case. Sometimes there's too little information; other times there's too much or it's not relevant.

Though Lasky contends Indiana would be better served with set guidelines on what information should be held back, she said the law had been beneficial to the state.

"Certainly, public scrutiny has played a role in child protection reforms in Indiana," Lasky said.

Steve Key, general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, said he hasn't heard any complaints about agencies or judges resisting releasing records in any Indiana case.

"There remains the strong sense that the public has the right to know that, when the state steps in and takes responsibility for children, that those children are protected," Key said.

Other states that require public disclosure of information on a child fatality or near-fatality include Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, New York and Nevada.

New York's legislation came about when a woman beat her 6-year-old daughter to death in 1995. The child was known to child protective services and other agencies because her drug-addicted mother had repeatedly abused her. However, because of caseworker error and little or no sharing of information, nothing was done to help her.

In response, New York lawmakers enacted the Child Protective Services Reform Act of 1996, known as Elisa's Law, to require that child fatality information be made available to state and city auditors and the public and that such information be shared among those investigating a case.

ln Arizona, state officials are required to provide summary information regarding a fatality or near fatality caused by abuse or neglect if any citizen requests it. A judicial review isn't required before the release. Information is released only about the dead child, said Beth Rosenberg, director of Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice for Arizona Children's Action Alliance. There is no information released about other people in the home.

"I think the law has helped," Rosenberg said. "Years ago, you wouldn't have gotten any information on a child."

Kentucky had the fifth-highest child abuse and neglect fatality rate among 43 states and the District of Columbia reviewed for federal fiscal year 2004, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study. The U.S. rate was 2.03 deaths per 100,000 children.

1. Indiana (4.81 deaths per 100,000 children)
2. District of Columbia (4.56)
3. Oklahoma (4.54)
4. Georgia (4.20)
5. Kentucky (3.88)
6. Missouri (3.47)
7. Wyoming (3.42)
8. Texas (3.38)
9. West Virginia (3.12)
10. Colorado (2.97)


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