More than statistics

March 10, 2006

Of the 6,196 child abuse and neglect allegations deemed credible by the Maryland Department of Human Resources last year, most of the children involved were nameless, faceless statistics to all but a select group of people - often the people charged with protecting them. State law keeps the identities of these children from being revealed to anyone else.

Ensuring the confidentiality of victimized children is understandable and necessary. But the law also shields those who failed to safeguard the children from neglect, injury, sexual abuse and death - biological parents, state-sanctioned foster parents, court-appointed guardians, juvenile court judges, child protective services workers. The law also often shuts out people outside the child welfare system who could objectively criticize or identify failings by caseworkers, or gaps within the system. This prevents those with legitimate interests in child abuse cases from closely reviewing them, tracking patterns and risk factors and developing prevention strategies, and making policy recommendations.

Yet the House Judiciary Committee is holding up proposed legislation that would require state social services administrators to disclose certain information about abused or neglected children who died or suffered severe physical injuries to the state's attorney's office, local health commissioners and attorneys who represented the children in past guardianship proceedings. The measure would provide additional oversight for vulnerable children and more accountability from the civil servants who make life-and-death decisions for them.

State social services administrators have urged the House committee to reject the legislation; they say it would hurt their ability to act in the best interest of affected children and to protect the privacy of children's families. But the legislation would prohibit disclosing the names of siblings, parents or guardians, unless they were the alleged abusers. It would also protect the identity of those who report abuse or neglect to child welfare authorities.

The public has a right to know when civil servants fail to perform their jobs, especially when those failures lead to the deaths and injuries of children. The current law clouds accountability precisely when the actions of child welfare agencies and judges should be scrutinized. The proposed legislation would provide more transparency and deserves consideration by the full state legislature.

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