Abused Children Dying Under Shroud of State Secrecy

Tue Apr 29, 2008 1:30pm EDT

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Report Shows Most States Fail to Release Information Critical to Exposing and
Resolving Systemic Problems in Child Abuse Prevention Systems

WASHINGTON, April 29 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The majority of U.S.
states fail to release adequate information about fatal and life-threatening
child abuse cases, adhering to misguided and secretive policies that place
confidentiality above the welfare of children and prevent public scrutiny that
would lead to systemic reforms, according to a report released today by First
Star and the University of San Diego School of Law's Children's Advocacy
Institute (CAI), two leading national child advocacy groups.
    Only a handful of states fully comply with the legislative intent of
federal law mandating public disclosure of the deaths and near deaths of
abused or neglected children, according to the report, entitled State Secrecy
and Child Deaths in the U.S. The report's authors argue that states withhold
critical information that would hold child welfare systems accountable and
avert future tragedies. First Star and CAI released their findings at a
Capitol Hill briefing today.
    The report issues letter grades from "A" to "F" based on an analysis of
the child death and near death disclosure laws and policies of all 50 U.S.
states and the District of Columbia.  Only six states -- Nevada, New
Hampshire, California, Indiana, Iowa and Oregon -- receive top grades of "A"
or "A-." Twenty-eight states receive a "C+" or lower grade. Ten states flunked
entirely: Georgia, Maryland, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Pennsylvania,
South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Vermont received a grade of "F" (see
attached chart).
    "When abuse or neglect lead to a child's death or near death, a state's
interest in confidentiality becomes secondary to the interests of taxpayers,
advocates and other children, who would be better served by maximum
transparency," said Amy Harfeld, First Star's Executive Director and a
co-author of the report. "Once we know what is broken, we can try to fix it."
    Approximately 1,500 children die each year in the U.S. as a result of
child abuse and neglect. Countless more suffer life-threatening injuries.
First Star and CAI are calling on Congress and individual state Legislatures
to adopt stronger policies and laws that demand closer examination of the
handling of child abuse cases that result in child deaths or near deaths.
    "The current emphasis on confidentiality only masks the problems inherent
in child protection systems," said Robert C. Fellmeth, CAI Executive Director
and Price Professor of Public Interest Law at the USD School of Law. "Public
exposure is a critical step toward fixing these problems."
    All 50 states and the District of Columbia accept federal funds under the
Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). To be eligible for funding,
states are supposed to have provisions that "allow for public disclosure of
the findings or information about" abuse or neglect cases that result in child
death or life-threatening injuries. But few states adequately comply, in part
because the public disclosure requirement in CAPTA leaves too much room for
interpretation.
    The Report highlights Massachusetts as an example of a state in need of
reform. In Massachusetts in 2005, Haleigh Poutre, then 11, was allegedly
beaten into a coma by her foster parents. The Department of Social Services
had received and dismissed at least 14 separate reports of prior suspected
abuse.
    First Star and CAI are pushing for changes in state and federal laws,
including:    -- Clarified language in federal law (CAPTA). CAI and First Star
       acknowledge that the public disclosure mandate as written in federal
       law is vague and leaves too much room for interpretation. They support
       changes that would clarify and strengthen disclosure requirements so
       states know how to comply with the intent of the legislation.

    -- Amendments to state policies and laws. To make disclosure policies more
       enforceable, the advocacy groups want state Legislatures to more
       clearly articulate and strengthen their policies and modify their
       statutes to require maximum transparency in cases of death and near
       death caused by abuse or neglect.

    -- Separating disclosures from criminal proceedings. Currently, some
       states, such as Minnesota and North Carolina, will not release
       information about a child fatality or near fatality unless a person is
       criminally charged. Disclosures should not be dependent on a district
       attorney's decision to prosecute.


    "Child abuse deaths and near deaths reflect the system's worst failures,"
said CAI's Emily Reinig, the report's chief author.  "Unfortunately, it is
often only through such cases that lawmakers and the public learn of systemic
inadequacies in child welfare systems.  Until state laws require the regular
release of accurate and unfiltered information, an informed public discussion
cannot occur.  Public access to the facts will protect children and save
lives."
    About First Star
    First Star is a national 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to
strengthening the rights and improving the lives of America's abused and
neglected children through education, public policy, legislative reform, and
litigation.  www.firststar.org
    About The Children's Advocacy Institute
    The Children's Advocacy Institute, of the University of San Diego School
of Law, works to improve the health, safety, and well being of children. In
addition to its academic component, CAI engages in regulatory and legislative
advocacy, impact litigation and public education in order to ensure that
children's interests are represented effectively whenever and wherever
government makes policy and budget decisions that will impact them.
www.caichildlaw.org


                                    GRADES
                                 At a Glance

     Jurisdiction       Grade               Jurisdiction   Grade

     Alabama            B-                  Missouri       B-
     Alaska             C                   Montana        F
     Arizona            B                   Nebraska       C+
     Arkansas           C-                  Nevada         A
     California         A-                  New Hampshire  A
     Colorado           D                   New Jersey     B-
     Connecticut        B-                  New Mexico     F
     Delaware           C                   New York       B+
     District of
      Columbia          B-                  North Carolina C
     Florida            B+                  North Dakota   F
     Georgia            F                   Ohio           C+
     Hawaii             B-                  Oklahoma       C+
     Idaho              B-                  Oregon         A-
     Illinois           B+                  Pennsylvania   F
     Indiana            A-                  Rhode Island   C-
     Iowa               A-                  South Carolina C
     Kansas             B                   South Dakota   F
     Kentucky           C-                  Tennessee      F
     Louisiana          C-                  Texas          C+
     Maine              D+                  Utah           F
     Maryland           F                   Vermont        F
     Massachusetts      D-                  Virginia       C-
     Michigan           B-                  Washington     B
     Minnesota          B                   West Virginia  B-
     Mississippi        B-                  Wisconsin      D
                                            Wyoming        D+


    NEWS CONFERENCE CALL TODAY AT 3PM IN WASHINGTON, DC

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SOURCE  The Children's Advocacy Institute

Amy Harfeld of First Star, +1-202-293-3703, or Elisa Weichel of CAI,
+1-858-254-1789, or Dominic Slowey of Slowey-McManus Communications,
+1-781-710-0014, all for The Children's Advocacy Institute
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