Thursday, Apr. 11, 2013
House speaker calls on Nixon to open records
By LAURA BAUER and JUDY L. THOMAS
The Kansas City Star
factbox1-B9760266ZChild abuse: What to watch for and how to report it April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. As a part of this year’s campaign, members of the Kansas City Child Abuse Roundtable Coalition urge people to not ignore the signs of abuse. Among those indicators: --Frequent bruises or injuries. --Abrupt changes in character or behavior. --Signs of neglect. To report abuse or neglect: Missouri: 1-800-392-3738 Kansas: 1-800-922-5330
Gov. Jay Nixon should order the release of records in recent child tragedies or expect lawmakers to take action, the Missouri House speaker said Wednesday.
Republican Rep. Tim Jones of Eureka called for the state’s child welfare system to return to its practice of opening records after children have died or been seriously injured by abuse or neglect. The only way for the system to improve, and be safer for children, he said, is for the public to be able to scrutinize actions made in tragic cases. That was the intent of a disclosure law on the books for more than a decade.
After three years of freely releasing information nearly every time the agency was asked, officials for the past nine months have denied requests for documents. This change started after the rescue of a malnourished and dehydrated Kansas City girl known as LP from a locked closet in late June. She had been placed under state supervision in 2006 and returned to her mother the next year.
“It is deeply troubling that the Missouri Department of Social Services has made a pronounced shift away from accountability and openness when it comes to cases dealing with the death or near-death of innocent Missouri children,” Jones wrote in an email to The Kansas City Star. “My predecessors in the legislature took swift action more than a decade ago to improve our state law and end the secretive ways that had existed within the department. ... It is my expectation that Governor Nixon will direct the department and the Children’s Division to follow the intent of the law and release these documents as they have done in the past.
“If he fails to do so, the Missouri House stands ready to take legislative action that will ensure the safety and well-being of children in our state.”
Lawmakers pushed for disclosure in 2000 after the starvation and torture deaths of two Kansas City brothers at the hands of their mother. The law clearly states that information can be released after a child fatality or near fatality. That decision is at the sole discretion of the DSS director, after a review of whether the information could harm siblings.
Nixon said Tuesday that he was not aware of “any significant policy changes” regarding disclosure of child welfare records and referred questions to his staff. Questions sent via emails by The Kansas City Star went unanswered Tuesday and Wednesday.
A joint investigation by The Star and the Springfield News-Leader last month found that DSS had apparently shifted its policy from one of openness to a culture of refusal. Records requested by the newspapers showed that since 2009, media agencies across the state had requested information in 22 child fatalities or near fatalities. The state released information in 16 cases, and kept two under consideration. But in four other cases, including the one involving LP and three that happened after hers, the DSS director refused to release anything.
“Things need to change,” said Nathan Ross, who became a child advocate after his two brothers died from being tortured and starved in 1999. “It doesn’t make any sense why they would want to keep that (information) private.”
Joe Maxwell, the former lieutenant governor and senator who co-wrote the law after the death of Ross’ brothers in Kansas City, said he and others at the time realized that some cases may have circumstances in which information shouldn’t be released. But this recent trend of not releasing anything in case after case, he said, may go too far.
“I can’t think of a way in which circumstances would be such that every case since June of last year had those qualities for which the director would think, ‘I can’t release this,’ ” Maxwell said Wednesday. “If there are not these types of circumstances, then the spirit of the law is clearly not being followed since June of last year.”
Shortly after the newspapers’ investigation, child advocates across the state participated in a conference call. They discussed whether the state’s policy of disclosure officially had been altered, and what role, if any, advocates could play in ensuring transparency. They came away with no clear answers, said Emily van Schenkhof, deputy director of Missouri KidsFirst.
“There obviously has been a substantive policy change, and we wish that whatever change has been made had not been made,” said van Schenkhof. “It’s not in the best interest of children and families for us to not be able to learn from our past mistakes. ... The governor has been a real supporter of children’s issues and criminal justice issues surrounding the protection of children. So we don’t fully understand who made the decision and why the decision was made.”
Others have those same questions. Many emailed The Star to say they would contact their lawmakers to demand more accountability.
“Please pursue this with all the energy you can muster,” wrote Becky Hill, of southeast Missouri. “It is time to change a system that is clearly broken. The children need someone to protect them. What else has to happen before changes are made? More murders?”
Ross, director of youth programs for the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association, said the child welfare system is good at finding loopholes to avoid releasing records.
The system must do better, he said. And when tragedies occur, information must be shared.
“The community has a right to know,” Ross said. “We should get to know how they failed so we know how to make them better. And we can’t do that if things are kept secret.”