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Utah gets high marks for child abuse fatality disclosure laws

Published April 17, 2012 5:22 pm

Child welfare • Report looks at how information is released to the public.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah moved from an F to an A minus in a periodic nationwide analysis of child fatality disclosure laws,despite recent restrictions to the amount of information the state gives out about children who die during or shortly after receiving state services.

Utah was one of two states classified as "most improved" by the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law and First Star, a national organization working to improve the lives of America's abused and neglected children. The state was among six that received A's or A minuses; four states received A pluses.

The report gave 20 states grades of C plus or lower, while three states earned D's and one state — Montana — earned an F. Cheryl Dalley, Utah's fatality review coordinator, was happy with the news but didn't think the bad grade, given the last time the analysis was done in 2008, was warranted in the first place.

"When the first report was done, the people who did the report did not search in the right places for information or feel it was readily available so they graded us on incomplete information," Dalley said.

The Children's Advocacy Institute and First Star presented the 2012 "State Secrecy and Child Deaths in the U.S." report Tuesday in Washington, D.C., where they also urged Congress to establish a special commission to develop a national strategy for reducing child abuse and neglect deaths and near deaths. A bill to do that, endorsed by 30 child welfare organizations, has been filed by a bipartisan group of Senate and House members.

Child abuse or neglect leads to the death of at least 1,770 children every year in the U.S. and an estimated 509,300 children are seriously harmed, the two groups said.

"The death of an abused or neglected child is not only an unspeakable tragedy, it is also a red flag that something has gone terribly wrong with the child welfare system responsible for that child," said Robert C. Fellmeth, a USD law professor and institute director. "Yet, too often these cases are shrouded in secrecy and, as a result, literally fatal flaws in state systems go undetected and opportunities to fix them are missed."

Under federal law, states must review deaths of individuals who have an open case or who received services from a human services agency within the previous 12 months.

Utah went from a total of 10 points in 2008, when the groups released their first report, to 90 in the new analysis, which looks at five criteria related to complying with the federal law.

"We are comparing the statutes and the rules, not necessarily practice," Fellmeth said, which he said provides the most consistent comparison from state to state.

The state received the highest score possible for having a written policy regarding public disclosure of findings in child abuse fatalities or near fatalities; having that policy adopted as law; ease of access to information; and public access to child abuse and neglect court proceedings.

Utah received only 10 of 20 possible points for scope of information publicly released.

"Utah's policy is vague and unclear," the report noted, and DCFS has interpreted federal law to require release of only a "brief written outline of information regarding the case," including "available facts and information with no further specificity."

Utah has narrowed what information it makes available publicly and also now requires the Child Welfare Legislative Oversight Panel to close meetings when it discusses the annual fatality report and agency responses to its findings. The 2010 statutory change was not noted in the analysis, though the institute highlighted adoption of a subsequent law clarifying that the Fatality Review Report's executive summary is a public document.

As of 2010, the annual Fatality Review Report contains a summary of cases, with ages and gender of children listed separately in charts rather than attached to narrative descriptions of deaths. There is no description of what involvement the Division of Child and Family Services had with the child and his or her family; the 2011 report states that such information is private.

Liz Sollis, DCFS spokeswoman, said the state's Department of Human Services' interprets federal law in a way that prioritizes confidentiality, individual privacy and safety.

But Elisa Weichel, staff attorney for the Children's Advocacy Institute, said, "It's hard to imagine how information about prior agency contact, if there was any, would not be considered 'available facts and information about the case.'"

According to the institute, a "good" public disclosure policy includes information about previous investigations and services provided by a child welfare agency to a child and his or her family as well its actions after a death or near fatality — information Utah now explicitly considers private.

The report's executive summary concludes that release of "accurate and unfiltered information in a timely manner" is needed to ensure system "fault lines" are identified and fixed.

"Public exposure is a necessary step toward fixing these problems," it said. "The federal government has already determined that the good that might come from disclosing information about these tragic cases exceeds any potential harm or embarrassment that some individuals might experience as a result — and states have no basis for adopting narrow, discretionary or condition-ladened policies that thwart Congressional directive or intent." —

Fatality Review

Utah's 2011 Fatality Review Report included summary details of 164 current or recent state clients' deaths. Of 53 reported child deaths, 12 children died as a result or directly because of abuse or neglect by a caregiver.