Monday, March 5, 2012

Child welfare confidentiality draws scrutiny - Indiana

Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind.— An Indiana law that keeps all child-protection records confidential except in cases of fatality or near fatality is out of date and prevents accountability when a child dies, some judges and lawmakers say.

"I have to make decisions based on the evidence before me," said St. Joseph Probate Judge Peter Nemeth, "and I'm not always sure that DCS is telling me everything."

The Indiana House has voted to create a legislative committee to review changes in how the state investigates reports of child abuse and neglect. Democratic legislators have questioned the Department of Child Services' spending and a new child abuse hotline that routes all reports to a centralized call center in Indianapolis

Republican legislators have defended the agency's performance, saying DCS has doubled the number of caseworkers and helped reduce the number of child abuse deaths since 2005.

But critics say there is a cloak of secrecy surrounding the agency and worry that failing to provide some information could have tragic consequences.

An Indiana child fatality review team studies and reports on deaths of Indiana children. Its public reports provide a general overview and broad recommendations but don't delve into specifics of what happened or did not happen, the South Bend Tribune reported (

Reports from a DCS ombudsman office established in 2010 to investigate complaints involving the department also contain only general trends and non-identifying information about specific cases.

DCS Director James Payne said he supports more openness.

"I'm not opposed to loosening up the confidentiality. I've said for years that `confidential' is really `secret,"' said Payne, a former juvenile court judge who opened his Marion County courtroom to cameras for a "Dateline" television special about the juvenile justice system. "The issue really is the degree of that."

Child protection officials say they worry that more openness could expose parents to unfounded tips and stigmatize children.

But others note that unsubstantiated reports of abuse or neglect are only kept for three months and say that has prevented child welfare workers from having all the information they need in some cases, including the beating death of Tramelle Sturgis, a 10-year-old South Bend boy, in November.

In that case, prosecutors learned that earlier reports to DCS about the boy and his family had been destroyed.

State Sen. John Broden, D-South Bend, introduced an amendment this session to change DCS record-keeping rules to store records of unsubstantiated reports for at least three years.

Broden, a former DCS attorney, advocates easing the system's confidentiality requirements so long as names of children and parents remain confidential.

"If the press wants to come and look at various cases and orders, I'd have no problem with that," he said.


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