Cases still closed

April 07, 2006

Members of the Maryland House Judiciary Committee have squandered an opportunity to bring more accountability to the state child welfare system by watering down a proposal that would have subjected child abuse case records to more outside review and provided additional oversight of the state's handling of vulnerable children.

The proposed legislation required state social service administrators to disclose information about abused and neglected children who died or suffered severe physical injuries to state attorneys' offices, local health commissioners and attorneys who represented the children in guardianship proceedings, among others. State law currently gives access to such records only to those involved in child abuse investigations.

The proposed bill would have allowed others to scrutinize those records to look for flaws in the child welfare system or mistakes by juvenile court judges, and to identify abuse risk patterns, develop prevention strategies and make policy recommendations. But the House committee approved an amendment to the legislation allowing state social services administrators to get protective court orders limiting further dissemination of the information. The amendment undermined the bill's goals because it prevented the information from being shared with the news media, policymakers, child advocacy groups and others.

Backers of the legislation believed they had no choice but to withdraw it. They plan to try again next year, and lawmakers should support them when they do. Unfortunately, this means that there will be no additional transparency in the child welfare system at least until then.

Although the amended legislation was not worthy of support, it's a shame House Judiciary Committee members passed up an opportunity to champion a measure that ultimately would have benefited children at risk. Instead, lawmakers sided with the state Department of Human Resources, which opposed giving outsiders access to such sensitive information - information that would have also exposed mistakes made by department workers charged with safeguarding children.

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