Update: Letting Sunlight in on Child Protection

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for March 3 and thereafter
760 words

(EDITORS: For newspapers that run Neal column later in week, this is a revised version, updated with legislative action and adjournment).

INDIANAPOLIS — Anthony Bars" life was short and full of pain. His death may save others from similar tragedy.

With time running out on this year"s Indiana General Assembly, lawmakers voted unanimously Thursday to approve a conference committee report on House Bill 1194, sending it to Gov. Joe Kernan for his signature.

The bill was a merging of several child protection proposals responding to Anthony"s case. The 4-year-old died of dehydration Jan. 19, 2002, in the home of his adoptive parents, Latricia and L.B. Bars of Indianapolis. A former caseworker for the Family and Social Services Administration faces three felony charges in connection with his death, including failure to conduct a background check on the adoptive parents. Incredibly, state files related to the case are missing.

HB 1194 will unseal records when children die in the care of child protective services and establish child fatality teams to review the deaths, among its other provisions. A court will have have 30 days to release the information and to redact names or other information deemed "irrelevant" to understanding how the fatality occurred.

"We’ll find out where the problems are when we have fatalities so we can fix them," explains Rep. David Orentlicher, D-Indianapolis.

No one argues that sunlight alone will prevent all fatalities from occurring. But it will change the culture of secrecy that protects the mistakes that cost lives.

If there is any criticism to level at HB 1194, it"s that it doesn"t go far enough to help children. With problems pervasive within child protection services, why limit our scrutiny to deaths?

Dozens of families each year say their children were wrongfully removed by overzealous caseworkers. There are dozens of stories about compassionate foster parents whose hearts were broken when a child was prematurely returned to an abusive home. There are dozens of foster homes unfit to raise children, dozens of children left in dangerous situations because a caseworker didn"t have time to adequately assess things.

Any error that can be made by an overworked, underpaid human can occur in child protection. It comes with the territory. But even with HB 1194, FSSA won"t have to explain its errors in the vast majority of cases. Confidentiality rules forbid it.

No organization makes a stronger case for openness than the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a not-for-profit organization that has worked with many states to reform child welfare systems. It contends the public should have full access to a case once a confidential initial hearing has been held. At that hearing, the lawyer for the parents or the court-appointed child advocate, called the guardian ad litem, could ask a judge to close a record or hearing if opening it might damage the child.

Child protection and juvenile court "have no interest in secrecy other than as a way to cover up their failings," according to an April 2003 report by the center. "If secrecy is truly needed to protect a child, that’s what the guardian ad litem is there to ask for."

The argument used against openness is that it would embarrass children. Not so, says the Coalition. The news media rarely publish the names of abuse and neglect victims and typically only name the parents if criminal charges are filed, which is already a matter of public record. In the majority of cases there are no graphic details to report, such as rape or molestation.

At least 10 states require open court hearings and a few, including Minnesota and Nebraska, permit access to records but give judges latitude to close them or redact names of victims. In states with open systems, the public tend to be more supportive of child protection funding and poverty assistance.

In Indiana, judges have discretion to open child protection hearings, but rarely do. A notable exception occurred in 2001 when three judges let cameras in their courts for a national television documentary produced by freelance journalist Karen Grau. One of the judges was Marion County’s James Payne, who has a reputation for allowing press and public in his courtroom if he thinks it might benefit the case or public understanding.

HB 1194 is a step toward greater accountability, but only a baby step. Next session, lawmakers should demand openness in all child protection proceedings. Secrecy and accountability have proven incompatible.


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