The Department of Children and Families has proposed a rule that will limit the information it publicly discloses about children who die or suffer life-threatening injuries from abuse and neglect. Only information deemed “pertinent” or “significant” to the case would be released.
The state says it’s about complying with federal laws that protect the child’s privacy. But existing laws already do that. And it’s no stretch to imagine that one day the rule would be used to hide agency incompetence or wrong-doing.
Now that public comment on the rule has closed, the state has at least two months to decide whether to go forward and publish the rule. It should reconsider.
Since 2003, when a 13-year-old boy died from malnutrition after his caseworker lost track of him, the agency has been operating under a court-appointed monitor. The agency’s makeover, with the help of federal funds, has doubled its budget, enabled the hiring of 1,000 caseworkers and expanded contracts for social services, among other changes.
Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, says court monitoring vastly improved the agency, even if not all its problems were addressed. “I don’t think they have gotten there yet on some of the fundamentals — how we make sure families are functioning and kids are safe,” Zalkind told The Star-Ledger’s Sue Livio in April.
The new rule has added to Zalkind’s concerns. She said no other state has proposed changing its rules to comply with federal laws on this issue.
New Jersey releases scant information as it is: After a fatality, the agency releases the date of death, dates of contact between the agency and prior contact between the agency and the child.
Which state employees will decide what is pertinent to know and what is not? And how can we be sure that someone won’t simply re-classify an inconvenient truth as “not pertinent”? If New Jersey had an independent child advocate or ombudsman who could rule on the matter, the potential for a conflict of interest could be eased.
Because ultimately, it’s not about fixing blame. It’s about getting at the truth that can help the state prevent a child’s injury or death in the future. This misguided rule loses sight of that goal.