After Rita Fisher Privacy laws: The right to know is not above needs of child-abuse victims and siblings.

January 27, 1998

THE BUSINESS OF child welfare is cloaked in confidentiality for good reason. Ethically, people who seek or accept help in the most intimate areas of their lives have a right to expect that such matters will be private. This is as sacred a tenet in social work as in medicine and psychiatry.

Practically, the ability of social service caseworkers to help children who reportedly have been mistreated hinges on trust. Caseworkers depend on people being willing to report a suspicion of abuse, trusting that their identities will be protected. They need the alleged victim, alleged abuser, family members and others with knowledge of a child's circumstances to allow them into their lives, to share what they know and accept assistance.

Without the guarantee of privacy, no one would cooperate. So even though child-welfare agencies are public, the public cannot, as a rule, expect information about individual cases.

The exception to that rule occurs when the system appears to have failed -- when a child under social services supervision dies or suffers a near-fatal injury as a result of abuse or neglect. Then the public has a right to know whether a service paid for with tax dollars has truly failed. Moreover, the future safety of children may depend on exposure of ineffective policies, practices or staff members.

After a 6-year-old New York girl was tortured and killed by her mother in 1996, for example, that city's child-welfare agency was found to be overburdened and guilty of pressuring employees to close cases prematurely. Reforms prompted by that situation included relaxation of confidentiality laws in fatal or near-fatal cases, when the alleged abuser has been criminally charged. Other jurisdictions across the nation have enacted similar measures.

With questions still unanswered about the death last June of 9-year-old Rita Fisher of Pikesville, who had been starved and beaten, Del. James W. Campbell, who represents parts of Baltimore and Baltimore County, is sponsoring legislation modeled on New York's.

Delegate Campbell's thoughtful proposal strikes a balance between the need for accountability and for confidentiality, even if a tragedy has occurred.

The bill is supported by Baltimore County's Department of Social Services, which has seemed frustrated by its inability to talk about the Fisher case. The bill would allow officials to reveal some information about cases like Rita's, including the child's name, investigators' findings, the services provided, a medical report related to cause of death or injury, and the circumstances of abuse.

It would not require disclosure of any or all of this information, nor should it. If the child is living or has siblings who are, it may be harmful to identify them or reveal details of the abuse. The public's right to know is an important value, but it does not outweigh a child's well-being.

Pub Date: 1/27/98

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