Secrecy About Abuse Deaths Stirs a Storm

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The department that investigates child abuse for Los Angeles County is under attack for allegedly hiding information about children who died under its watch – highlighting a perpetual and sensitive issue for public child protection agencies around the country.

As some of those agencies have found over the years, withholding information about the death of a child sometimes fuels its own controversy.

The trouble for the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) started with a Los Angeles Times project about the deaths of children under DCFS watch, escalated into an investigation of DCFS staff who leaked case information to the newspaper, and intensified last week with a report from the county saying that the department withheld information that state law requires it to release.

While it was once standard operating procedure for child protection agencies to release nothing about such cases, citing laws to protect the privacy of the children and their families, many child welfare administrators and advocates have shifted in recent years toward releasing information.

“It’s to everyone’s benefit to be as transparent as you can,” said Andrea Bartolo, director of consultation for the Child Welfare League of America. Providing information about a case “helps John Q Public understand that there are a tremendous amount of stressful and mitigating factors” in investigating alleged abuse and neglect, and a lot to be learned from cases in which a child died.

“If we don’t acknowledge that we can always do better, the public has this very dim and disconnected view of the work of the child welfare agencies,” Bartolo said.

Making information public might also help the agency director save his or her job, as found in a Youth Today review of some high-profile cases.

Getting in trouble

The Los Angeles controversy began, as these conflicts often do, with news coverage about the deaths of children who had come to the attention of the child protection agency. The Los Angeles Times project began last year, and was brutal on the DCFS. The newspaper said that from January 2008 through August 2009, some 213 such children died of “unnatural or undetermined causes, including 76 homicides, 35 accidents and 16 suicides.”Among the headlines: “L.A. County dithered, children died.”

The project has not ended, as the paper continues aggressively covering the DCFS and its refusal early this year to release records about more child deaths. The relentless coverage compelled Department Director Trish Ploehn to write an an op-ed in The Times, explaining that “I have a duty to … uphold state law by taking reasonable measures to protect confidentiality while sharing any and all information that can be legally shared.”

But someone did provide some of those records to The Times, prompting the county’s board of supervisors, at the request of DCFS, to authorize a leak investigation this past August. That drew more critical media coverage. The aura of secrecy was fueled by the fact that the board took the vote in a closed meeting; under criticism for that, it voted again in an open meeting.

In her op-ed, Ploehn lamented that releasing information through leaks “erodes public trust and contributes to the oversimplification of the work that social workers do.”

The investigation has led to no public revelations about a leaker’s identity.

Then came last week’s report by the county’s Office of Independent Review, which concluded that DCFS has not complied with a state law passed in 2007 to publicly reveal all child abuse deaths and to make many records about those deaths public. (County officials have said that about 20 deaths had not been disclosed.)

The report offers a rare examination of a child welfare agencies’ efforts to comply with a disclosure law.

It does not accuse the department of conspiring to withhold information, but notes that the released information “might ultimately cause criticism of the child protective services agency,” and therefore there might be “conscious or unconscious incentives for child protective services officials to adopt a narrow” interpretation of whether certain records met the criteria for disclosure.

Zev Yaroslavsky, one of five members on the board of supervisors, was less charitable, accusing the DCFS of misleading the board and the public through “an intent to withhold information.”

Here is one way that the records were withheld: State law requires release of numerous records in child abuse death cases unless doing so would jeopardize a criminal investigation. On those grounds, law enforcement agencies can file objections to the release of specific documents.

The report says DCFS has been asking law enforcement agencies to file any such objections before those agencies had a chance to review the files. Thus, those agencies were filing blanket objections to halt the release of documents they had not seen, creating “a virtual paralysis of the statute’s intent.”

One reason for its problems, the DCFS said in a prepared statement, is that “gray areas in the law led to two different sides of our department following two different standards in terms of the release of information.” The report says some of the state regulations for carrying out the law  create “confusion.”

The board of supervisors ordered the DCFS to develop a plan to implement the report’s recommendations to improve the disclosure of information about abuse and neglect deaths.

Department spokesman Nishith Bhatt said the agency is “absolutely” in favor of releasing as much information as possible about the fatalities of children under its supervision.

Another way to release information

If so, then Los Angeles might want to look to Connecticut, which takes the much of this dilemma out of the hands of child welfare administrators. The state’s Office of the Child Advocate has the authority to review unexpected child deaths, including deaths allegedly caused by abuse or neglect. That office often issues reports on its findings about specific cases.

Those reports typically leave out certain identifying information about the families and the case workers. The question, said Assistant Child Advocate Faith Vos Winkel, is “what does the public need to know, what do policy makers need to know,” in order to understand what happened in a case and what practices might be changed.

For an example, the office’s more recent report, about a 7-month-old boy who died while under the care of a foster parent, is here.

Vos Winkel said that releasing case information enables an informed discourse with the public and elected officials about what policies and practices need to be changed.  “I don’t know how you’re going to improve systems if you’re hiding behind some veil of confidentiality,” she said.