They believe they were bound by confidentiality law from saying anything about the case, even as public outrage grew and blame was heaped on Denver County child welfare.
Human services authorities will not say whether they received any calls to the child abuse hotline, as the family’s neighbors said they made. Nor whether they visited the home in the years since the first three kids, also nonverbal and not potty-trained, were taken away and adopted by other families. Not even whether they went to court to ask a judge to remove the boys born after their parents lost a court battle to keep their first three children.
Instead, the community was left in the dark.
Across the nation, child advocates are pushing for more transparency in child abuse and neglect cases, arguing that confidentiality impedes reform and that it’s possible to answer questions about how the system broke down without violating a child’s privacy.
“Confidentiality is killing kids,” said Michael Petit, president of Every Child Matters in Washington, D.C. “It’s shielding the public from what the real problems are. It isn’t just the public’s right to know, it’s the public’s right to intervene.”
A national commission focused on child abuse deaths, expected to convene in January, is likely to make confidentiality a key issue, said Petit, who was appointed to the panel by President Obama.
Colorado rewrote part of its transparency law this year, requiring that a state review team that investigates child deaths include age, gender and a description of any previous involvement with child welfare authorities. The reviews also identify problems for the county that handled the case.
But by the time the reports are released, sometimes a year after the death and after a back-and-forth process of state and county input, public outcry has quieted. Also, the public and the media do not have access to the original documents, only the report that is a collaboration between county and state officials.
Colorado’s child ombudsman, a watchdog for the state child welfare system, found earlier this year that the state child fatality review team made 97 errors of fact and missing details when reviewing the death of a 2-year-old boy whose skeleton was found under his home. The state did not include all policy mistakes made by caseworkers who had received calls about the boy before his meth-using mother strangled him, the ombudsman said.
So far in 2013, 40 children in Colorado have died from abuse and neglect, according to a state website required to list the incidents within three days. About one quarter of those children’s families were involved with child welfare workers within three years of their deaths.
The tally of kids who were killed, nearly killed — including severe brain injuries — and egregiously neglected — including the four Denver boys rescued from squalor in September — is at 85 for this year. Of those, 33 were previously known to the child protective system, meaning a state team is required to review those cases.
And out of those 33, just four reports are completed and available to the public. Several are bouncing between the state review team and the county where the death or near-death happened, following a timeline spelled out in state law.
“There is no backlog. We are up to date per the legislation,” said Julie Krow, director of the state Office of Children, Youth and Families. “Our administration has a commitment to transparency, taken in balance with what’s best for the children.”
This year’s law change also requires that Colorado’s fatality reviews include the names of children who have been killed, but not those still living.
The state Department of Human Services previously released the names of children killed by abuse and neglect, but made the reports nameless in 2012 and 2013 when the state began putting them online. State officials said they changed policy to align with federal guidelines.
The Denver Post used state fatality reviews from 2007-11 that included children’s names to create an online gallery of children’s stories and photos. The newspaper’s investigation last year found that 40 percent of children who die of abuse and neglect in this state had families who were previously known to caseworkers.
The children who died in 2012 and the first half of 2013, until the law making names public, will remain nameless on the state website containing their fatality reports.
The institute published a report, State Secrecy and Child Deaths in the U.S., last year that graded every state on its transparency. Colorado, with a D-plus, was one of four states to score a D or an F, but that was before changes in state law that required more openness and also forced the state review team to investigate near-fatalities and egregious incidents of neglect, not just deaths.
Reform advocates are not arguing that laws to protect privacy aren’t necessary. Revealing the name of a girl sexually assaulted by her uncle, for example, serves no purpose, reform advocates say. But the public should know how the child protection system works, or doesn’t, so people can participate politically in reform, Riehl said.
“Children, in particular dead children, do not have a voice,” she said. “When we hide that horribleness from all of the good people, there is nobody good standing up and saying we need more help and we need more resources. Instead, we are talking about resources for those who have a voice.”
Stuck in a rut
Child protection officials tend to “over-interpret” confidentiality law, believing it requires them to say nothing at all about their work, said Kendall Marlowe, executive director of the National Association of Counsel for Children and former head of caseworkers in Illinois.
“There is no good reason for child welfare systems to be as secretive as they are,” he said. “If the law is too restrictive, change the law.”
Marlowe said he believes there is a “growing movement toward transparency.” For decades, secrecy has led to finger-pointing toward child welfare, but if the public were allowed to hear it, they would learn how many other systems — courts, health care, law enforcement — are involved in protecting kids, he said.
“What transparency would show is that child welfare is a complex system that needs the active participation of the entire community,” he said.
Marlowe said the country is stuck in a rut: The media scream that children are dying, focusing on examples of child welfare workers not acting aggressively enough in taking kids from their parents, and the child welfare system, meanwhile, says “we can’t talk about it.”
“The field has too long hidden behind confidentiality of families,” he said. “We are spending the taxpayers’ money to protect children. We owe it to the public to openly explain what we are doing to protect kids.”
In the case of the four boys rescued from squalor in Denver this fall, Denver County child protection authorities said they were frustrated they could not talk about their prior involvement with the family but that they must guard the trust of families who need intervention.
As for finding out whether the parents will lose rights to the boys, now in foster care, those court records are not public in this state.
Reform advocates say Colorado has made strides in transparency in the last two years, but criticize the number of exceptions in the law for withholding information, including the blanket exception, in “the best interest of the child.”
“The real discussion is how do we balance the privacy rights of families and children with the public’s right to know if our systems are working, ” said Stephanie Villafuerte, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center. “This is the hard conversation that needs to take place.”
Jennifer Brown: 303-954-1593, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/jbrowndpost