Death is no secret

March 03, 2004

WHEN A CHILD is killed, as two have been in Baltimore in the past week, people ask why. What happened? What could prevent it from happening again?

If the child was being served by the city's Department of Social Services, the questions mount. Did she get proper services? Was he placed in foster care or returned to a parent? Is this a case of a family too far gone to save, or one where the state's intervention caused more harm than good?

While the welfare records of living children are private - and rightly so, in most instances - the records of those who have died should not be. If the facts aren't known, there can be no accountability - little chance the system, if broken, will be fixed, and a big chance another child could die.

Yet this has not been the practice at the city's DSS, and that must change. There are about 7,700 kids at any given time in the child protection system; of the 36 deaths DSS investigators looked into last year, 28 had active DSS case files. Six of them died of suspected maltreatment - abuse, neglect, overdose or while sleeping with an adult.

It is reasonable to ask if these horrible events are unique cases or evidence of some flaw in one or another system - be it DSS, the courts, the state's attorney's office, the public defender's office or the police.

It's also the law. Federal grant funding is tied to states' allowing public disclosure of information about cases of abuse or neglect that result in a child's death or severe injury. Maryland's reporting guidelines ensure that confidential details are omitted, either through deleting names and other identifiers from records or through using an official disclosure form. The focus is on agency contacts - the what, where, when, why.

In Maryland, the potential logjam is the discretionary power given the Department of Human Resources secretary, the local DSS director and the state's attorney's office, any of whom may veto release of information in the name of protecting other family members or protecting the case against the alleged killer. Under the most rigid reading of the law, the department need never release details after a child has died. But that subverts the law's intent, which is to ensure that things that are broken - be they regulations, interagency connections or front-line service - get fixed. For example, Sun reporter Allison Klein's story of the death of Ciara Jobes, allegedly injured by her court-appointed guardian, started a public debate over how closely guardians should be vetted before they are given custody. State Sen. Lisa A. Gladden now is shepherding a bill detailing more stringent requirements for guardians. Such legislation would be far less likely to come about if Ciara's story hadn't been made public.

DSS was more forthcoming in the case of an 18-month-old who was suffocated Saturday, including information on why the child was taken from her mother at birth and when and who returned her to her father. This kind of openness must become habit. There is no reason to shield dead children and plenty of reason to protect those who are still alive.

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