April 17, 2012
Advocacy groups examining how effective state statutes and policies are in preventing child abuse and neglect are giving Virginia a B- for its public-disclosure laws, an improvement from four years ago.
The Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego and a nonprofit called First Star are issuing state-by-state assessments Tuesday in its "State Secrecy and Child Deaths in the U.S." report. The groups want Congress to pass legislation to create a special commission that would determine a national strategy to reduce the number of child-abuse deaths.
More than 1,770 children died from abuse and more than 509,000 were seriously harmed last year nationwide, yet many states' laws shield information from the public about child-abuse cases, according to the groups' report. The lack of transparency allows flaws in state child-protection systems to go undetected and uncorrected, thus putting children at risk, the groups said.
Virginia earned high marks for its policy requiring mandatory public disclosure of information about abuse cases that result in a child's fatality or near fatality. Before 2009, the state previously left it up to agencies whether to make their information public, earning Virginia a C- in a similar report in 2008.
The state's public-reporting policy authorizes agencies to disclose whether a report was made; whether officials initiated an investigation; results of completed investigations; whether previous reports were made and a summary of those previous reports; dates and outcome of any investigations or actions taken by an agency in response to previous reports; and the agency's activities in handling the case.
But Virginia gets low marks for closing child abuse and neglect court proceedings to the public. State law allows judges the discretion to determine who's allowed in the hearings.
"There is still the pervasive, primitive mentality that continues — that children are chattel, that children belong to their parents and only the parents have authority to do things and say things and release information," said the report's primary author, Amy Harfeld, senior staff attorney for the Children's Advocacy Institute. "It's a lack of civil rights for children."
The Virginia Department of Social Services didn't immediately respond to an email request seeking comment.
Families have some right to privacy, but only to a point, advocates say.
"When a family has become enmeshed in the child-welfare system, they no longer have that presumption of privacy," Harfeld said. The safety of the child involved — as well as other children who may be at risk — then takes precedence.
"States have this warped understanding of what the confidentiality laws are supposed to protect," she said.
In 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available, abuse and neglect killed 28 children in Virginia, or 1.5 deaths per 100,000 children.
Harfeld said state officials should disclose as much information as they have on abuse fatalities and life-threatening injuries because it allows the states to identify systemic problems and holds accountable those tasked with protecting children.
"Children don't vote, don't pay taxes and don't usually complain when things don't go their way," she said, while judges, child-welfare workers, attorneys and others "have tremendous power" over their fates.
The institute wants every state to release the following: the age of each child involved in fatal abuse and neglect cases; the cause of death; how many previous contacts the family had with child-welfare authorities; what services were or weren't provided to the family; what oversight and monitoring was done; and where the child was living at the time of death.
Knowing that a child died in a group home, for example, might prompt a review of how a state regulates group homes or an investigation of the home's manager.
Children's Advocacy Institute director Robert C. Fellmeth said each death is a tragedy, but "also a red flag that something has gone terribly wrong with the child-welfare system."