NEW YORK — Many states often fail to release adequate information about fatal and near-fatal child-abuse cases, placing confidentiality above disclosure to a degree that thwarts needed reforms, two child-advocacy groups say in a new report.
Their report, which gives 10 states a failing grade for their disclosure practices, urges Congress and state legislatures to adopt stronger policies and laws regarding deadly and life-threatening child-abuse cases. It is being released today by First Star, a national nonprofit which advocates for abused children, and by the University of San Diego School of Law's Children's Advocacy Institute.
"When abuse or neglect lead to a child's death or near death, a state's interest in confidentiality becomes secondary to the interests of taxpayers, advocates and other children, who would be better served by maximum transparency," said Amy Harfeld, First Star's executive director and a co-author of the report.
"Once we know what is broken, we can try to fix it," she said.
Several of the states receiving low grades defended their policies on grounds that families entangled in near-fatal abuse cases were entitled to confidentiality. Harfeld responded that the report was not pressing for disclosure of families' names, but rather for other details illuminating how state agencies handled the cases.
Every state accepts federal funds under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which directs states to "allow for public disclosure" of information regarding fatal and near-fatal cases.
But the report says many states limit disclosure because the act provides too much leeway. For example, according to report, some state policies cover abuse deaths but not near-fatalities, while other states impede access by releasing information only if a petition is filed.
Robert Fellmeth, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Institute, noted that extensive details often emerge only when a child-abuse death gets heavy media coverage.
"But the reality is that 90-plus percent of the time, nobody knows anything and the states actively conceal it," he said in a telephone interview. "That's not right and that's what we're mad about.
"The system most of all wants to protect its most embarrassing gaffes," Fellmeth said.
About 1,500 American children die from abuse annually. The report contends that more standardized and thorough disclosures about these deaths, and near-fatal cases, might reduce the toll.
Changes resulting from a single high-profile tragedy "are usually knee-jerk responses," the report said. "Enhanced public disclosure of all child abuse and neglect deaths and near deaths enables the public, child advocates and policymakers to work together to understand comprehensive trends and craft more thoughtful, comprehensive reforms."
The report issued grades for the disclosure policies of all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Only six states — Nevada, New Hampshire, California, Indiana, Iowa and Oregon — received grades of A or A minus. Ten states received an F: Georgia, Maryland, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Vermont.
In South Dakota, Virgena Wieseler of the Division of Child Protection Services said her agency would propose changes based on the laws in states that got high grades. Rob Johnson of Tennessee's Department of Children's Services said legislative efforts were under way "on how to better release information."
But several states contested their ranking.
Cathy Utz of Pennsylvania's Office of Children, Youth and Families said the report did not reflect a recent state initiative to provide summaries of fatal and near-fatal cases in its annual child-abuse report. Elizabeth Sollis of Utah's Department of Human Services said the report was wrong in asserting that her state had no policy on disclosure.
Tara Muhlhauser of North Dakota's children and family services division said officials withhold only information that is deemed confidential under state or federal law.
"We are not failing in our efforts to protect children in North Dakota," she said, contending that the F grade reflected only a "narrow category" regarding public information.
Vermont's and Georgia's low grades were due partly to their policies of withholding information about near-fatalities.
"If a child survives a situation that serious, being on page one of the newspaper could be incredibly re-traumatizing," said Steve Dale, commissioner of Vermont's Department of Children and Families.
Romaine Serna of New Mexico's Children, Youth and Families Department said her state complies with federal law.
"It's a balancing act for us because we do believe in the public's right to know but we also believe in families and their right to confidentiality," she said.
Elyn Jones of Maryland's Department of Human Resources said the low grade was no surprise because the agency has long been criticized for restrictive disclosure policies. Maryland is one of a handful of states that doesn't release information about serious child abuse unless a criminal charge is filed.
However, Jones said the department was working on being more open with information than past administrations.
The report made three general recommendations:
- Amend federal law to clarify and strengthen disclosure requirements, so states know how to comply with its intent.
- Revise state policies and laws to make disclosure policies more enforceable.
- Separate disclosures from criminal proceedings so information on fatal and near-fatal abuse is made available no matter whether a criminal charge is filed.