When a Louisiana child dies or is critically injured by abuse and neglect, the state Department of Child and Family Services typically releases very limited information about what happened, even in cases where the agency itself might have failed to protect a child.
DCFS officials over the years have emphasized that this is required by state and federal law, saying they are prohibited from making public more details by broad confidentiality regulations. But other states are more open, releasing far more information about child abuse and neglect, including records about past agency contact with a family.
Earlier this month, after a police officer discovered an emaciated 15-year-old covered in filth living in a Baton Rouge home, DCFS released a report that acknowledged DCFS staff had previously looked into the child’s condition. But the document shed almost no light about how child protective workers evaluated the case of the 47-pound, special-needs child whose mother was subsequently arrested on a juvenile cruelty charge.
Louisiana’s rules aim to prevent survivors and other victims in the family from continued cruelty should reports of their torment be released to the public, causing shame and ridicule, DCFS employees have said. Furthermore, workers can be charged with a felony and jailed if they release too much information, though state law does not spell out where they should draw the line between public and confidential documents.
Louisiana’s laws are “vague and unclear” according to a 2012 study that graded each state’s child abuse public records laws. The Pelican State earned a C, placing it in the bottom third. The Louisiana statute allows only “limited public disclosure of summary information contained in the child abuse or neglect records of the (DCFS).”
Other states provide much more detailed guidance. In New Hampshire, the statute lists a dozen items the commissioner of Health and Human Services is legally bound to release to the public when a child dies or is critically injured by abuse or neglect.
New Hampshire must release all dates previous reports of abuse were filed, when they were referred to a local office, when that office made contact with the family, whether the department could substantiate the allegations and any actions the state took or services they provided, among other details.
In comparison, earlier this year, The Advocate requested from DCFS a summary statement in the 2012 death of a Livingston Parish child who drowned while under the supervision of a relative. DCFS summarized the agency’s prior contact with the family in two sentences, acknowledging that a complaint of “inadequate shelter” of the child had been made and sustained. “DCFS provided services, details of which DCFS is prohibited from providing by Statute 46:56,” the statement concluded.
When asked if changes to the law such as more specific directions would be helpful, DCFS officials declined to take a stand.
“We don’t make laws. We just follow the laws,” Chief of Staff Tia Embaugh said. “Our position is that we have to do whatever we can to protect kids within the law.”
“I didn’t draft it. We just have to live with it,” said attorney Charlie Dirks, the department’s executive counsel.
DCFS errs on the side of caution because the state has written a felony offense into the law for anyone who releases too much information, he continued.
“That doesn’t make it very easy when you’re trying to figure out what’s summary or not summary,” Dirks said. “You’d be foolish to not be cautious when criminal liability is attached.”
State Rep. Alfred Williams, D-Baton Rouge, called for an outside review of DCFS after news of the malnourished child surfaced in media reports, saying people had since approached him about other agency failures. Since then, DCFS referred its internal view to the state Inspector General’s Office, which is taking a look at the case. Inspector General Stephen Street said he could not comment on the scope of the investigation or how long it might take.
Williams’ legislative aide, Brittany Bryant, said the representative, who is recovering from knee surgery, has no plans to push for a records law revision but that it could be an avenue for exploration.
If state leaders do consider change, they may look upriver to Minnesota, which will roll out new public records laws Monday. The revisions remove vague directives and outline specific information that must be released to the public, such as previous investigations of abuse and neglect that preceded a child’s death or critical injury. The state also will have to provide the results of those investigations and services provided to the child.
The governor formed a task force after a high-profile child abuse death in 2013, said Marcia Milliken, executive director of the Minnesota Children’s Alliance. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune published stories with headlines such as “Fumbled warnings cost kids their lives,” and “Judge ‘sickened’ by abuse program’s failures.”
The task force came back after six months with recommendations for stricter laws, a permanent monitoring group to make sure the laws were implemented and $30 million in new funding to hire more child abuse investigators, Milliken said.
Open records allow lawmakers, advocates and members of the public to determine whether agencies are providing adequate services to children in danger, said Amy Harfeld, the national policy director for the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law and coauthor of “State Secrecy and Child Deaths in the U.S.,” the study that graded each state.
“We can only fix what we know is broken,” she said. “If states are not disclosing what they should, who’s going to do something about it?”
She provided a fictional example of a city that finds that most child abuse fatalities occur within six months of a child being returned to a parent after being placed in foster care due to the parent’s drug use. Such a finding would indicate that the drug treatment program may be inadequate and that parents may need to be sober longer before they can be reunited with their children to prevent future deaths, Harfeld said.
State laws governing abuse records vary widely, said Michael Petit, who serves on the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. The most secretive states often have strict laws to protect their own employees, but child services, which Petit said are “in crisis across the country,” will be improved by institution-wide changes, not witch hunts.
When a report surfaces of a child in the system suffering or dying, “frequently it becomes a feeding frenzy. … (The public is) just gonna ask for someone’s head,” Petit continued.
Commission members realize there are problems with public records laws — resulting from unclear federal direction and states’ reluctance to roll out meaningful legislation — but Petit said the group has not yet determined what steps are needed to improve the situation.
One state that has received consistently high marks in Harfeld’s studies is trying to maintain transparency by automatically posting reports of child deaths on the Internet.
In 2005, Nevada experienced an “alarming number” of child fatalities in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, said Chrystal Martin, spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. The state Legislature convened a panel of politicians, law enforcement officers and members of the judiciary to overhaul the system, and they decided to make records more easily accessible.
Nevada did decide to keep children’s names and addresses off the Internet, so the focus is on the child protection system, rather than the victims.
“I think it’s improved public perception because we’re working toward being as transparent as possible without breaking any confidentiality laws,” Martin said. “I think the outcome of the Blue Ribbon Panel and the changes to the revised statute are giving us more of an opportunity to look at the systemic issues. There’s always room for improvement.”
The justice system already has a precedent for cases that attract public attention and require privacy for victims, Harfeld said.
Politicians should look toward existing procedures surrounding rape investigations to inform their treatment of child abuse, she said. The aim, then, should not be to publicize the identities of victims but to ensure that the system is working to protect the community to prevent the next attack.
“We’ve sort of figured out how to do that in a respectful way,” Harfeld said. “More or less we have figured out how to … achieve that appropriate balance.”
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.