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Children Die in Secret
December 5, 2006 permalink
An editorial in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle reports that in California child protectors conceal the facts when their wards die, even though the legislature enacted a law requiring full disclosure, including names, in these cases. This experience suggests that only an outside agency with subpoena power can disclose failings within the child protection system.
On Foster Care Reform
Why are these children dying?
THE STATE OF California cannot say how many foster children die each year, even though a state law that took effect in 2004 requires counties to release the names, dates of birth, and dates of death for these children. The new law is not being followed by all: The Children's Advocacy Institute, a San Diego-based research and lobbying group that co-sponsored the 2004 law, requested the names for 2005 from all 58 counties. Nearly a year later, they're still waiting for two counties to respond.
The names that they do have for 2005 -- 48 so far -- offer more questions than answers. What does it mean, for example, that nine of the deaths were children age 17 or older, five of whom were within six weeks of their 18th birthday? Are 17-year-olds simply more likely to get in car accidents? Suffer drug overdoses? Skateboard without helmets? Or does it mean the fulfillment of our worst fears -- that some children, facing the harsh realities of homelessness and desperation when they "age out" of the system at 18, are taking their own lives instead?
"There's no way to get more information without going to the courts," said Christina Riehl, staff attorney for the Children's Advocacy Institute.
There is absolutely no reason why an advocacy group, a newspaper, an elected official, or any other concerned member of the public should have to go to court to find out what happened when a foster youth dies.
But due to California's baffling policies on disclosure, it's extraordinarily difficult for the public to learn who in the system is dying and why. Nearly every bill that has come through the Legislature in the past several years has been stonewalled by the County Welfare Directors' Association.
Take AB1817, a very modest bill sponsored by Assemblyman Bill Maze, R-Visalia, three years ago. Concerned about a wave of foster children's deaths in his district, Maze simply wanted legislators to be allowed to review the case files of deceased children in the system. But he couldn't get his bill out of the Judiciary Committee.
"They said that, as an elected official, I'd just use these cases as a political forum," said Maze. "I think it's just baloney. We need to know if there's some kind of pattern or trend or lack of oversight in case management, because, until we know that, we won't know how to fix the problem. But needless to say, I've been fought against on this issue tremendously by the welfare directors of this state."
Maze is not the only one frustrated by the lack of information about child deaths from California's social-services bureaucracies. Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services determined that the state was violating federal law by failing to file reports about the deaths and near-deaths of children due to abuse or neglect. Threatened with the loss of $60 million in child-welfare funds, this summer the state began requiring counties to file these reports. But -- and here's the rub -- the Department of Social Services keeps all names confidential, even in the case of foster children.
Imagine -- our state's most vulnerable children, betrayed by a state system that was supposed to protect them -- and we have no idea who they are. A look at the questionnaires the state started providing this July offer only haunting glimpses of their fates:
- On July 30, a 15-year-old foster child died after either jumping or being pushed from a moving car in a suspected sexual assault.
- On Aug. 17, a 2-year-old foster child drowned after her foster parents left her alone in a bath tub.
- On Aug. 24, a 16-year-old committed suicide by shooting himself in the head after telling his sibling that he couldn't take their legal guardian's abuse anymore.
Confidentiality is important, especially when it comes to protecting the identities of family members and abuse reporters. We understand, as well, that it's important to protect the names of abused children who suffer near-fatalities but are expected to recover. But there are no good reasons why the full case files -- including names, counties and histories -- for dead foster children shouldn't be open to all of us. There can't be any accountability without transparency.
When we asked Sue Diedrich, assistant general counsel for the state Department of Social Services, why they couldn't tell us more, she said that the state could risk its federal funding.
That's simply not true, according to a federal official who tracks the issue.
"Federal law doesn't require that a state release (those details), but it doesn't prohibit those disclosures either," said Susan Orr, associate commissioner of the children's bureau in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Indeed, there are at least two states, Georgia and South Carolina, which offer up just the sort of connect-the-dots information that an informed public needs -- and unlike California, they haven't had any threats of a funding cut-off.
There is a solution to this, and this year Assembly members Sharon Runner and Karen Bass even tried to offer it. It was AB2938, which required the release of juvenile court records, and county and state files, in the case of a child death pertaining to abuse or neglect. AB2938 should be expanded to include the deaths of foster children, regardless of whether or not they died as a result of abuse or neglect.
Unfortunately, although the governor and Legislature worked together to pass many important pieces of child-welfare legislation this year, AB2938 wasn't one of them. The county welfare directors' association voiced its opposition again, and it didn't go past its first committee.
For some reason, there are still people who seem to believe that if we don't get the information, we won't pay attention to the fact that our children are dying.
They're wrong. It's time to resurrect -- and expand -- AB2938. What we don't know can hurt us. It's unconscionable to let children pay the price.