Thursday, December 1, 2016

Bill proposes confidentiality waiver for testimony on child abuse appeals

Posted By on Thu, Dec 1, 2016 at 11:23 AM

click to enlarge CLARK: Says confidentiality rules need to be loosened. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • BRIAN CHILSON
  • CLARK: Says confidentiality rules need to be loosened.

A bill filed last week
by state Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) would allow a legislative committee to hear and discuss confidential information pertaining to a completed child maltreatment investigation under certain circumstances.

Currently, the confidentiality rules surrounding child abuse and neglect cases allow state legislators access to such information, but prevent them from discussing it in committee — a public forum where press is often in attendance. Clark's legislation would come into play when a "true finding" of maltreatment is under appeal and the individual or family in question wants to disclose details pertaining to the case. True findings are not infrequently overturned on appeal.

SB 8 amends the state Child Maltreatment Act to allow for a "waiver of confidentiality" that would permit "the release of information on a true investigative determination pending due process."

We've written recently of the frustrations created by the state's strict nondisclosure rules regarding child abuse cases, which can sometimes seem like a way for child welfare authorities to avoid accountability for errors. (Meanwhile, those same authorities may have had perfectly good reasons for making the decisions they did — but confidentiality prevents them from explaining those decisions.) Some people who say their cases were mishandled by the Division of Children and Family Services, or other parts of the system, have complained that they're prevented from explaining the details of those cases as Clark and other legislators have questioned child welfare practices recently.

Yet confidentiality also exists for a very good reason reason, which is to keep sensitive information regarding children out of the public eye. That's why such cases unfold in closed court proceedings where the press cannot be present. Even if SB 8 brings needed sunlight in some cases, might it not allow for a public airing of grievances that could harm kids in other instances?

Clark said this morning that he was aware of the "danger of unintended consequences" when changing the rules, but he said a change is needed. "The system as it is is not perfect, so solutions cannot be expected to be perfect," he added. Clark said an individual with a true finding of maltreatment can already discuss their case "on the radio" or in some other public forum, and that they should also be able to openly talk about their experience to a legislative body. "Where people plead their innocence especially, it is not uncommon they would like their cases discussed. ... DHS and [the Crimes Against Children Division of the state police], whether on purpose or not, hide behind the confidentiality laws." Clark cited the the Stanley family in Hot Springs, a controversial maltreatment case that's become a cause celebre in conservative circles.

He also said it would be up to the legislative committee whether to grant a waiver of confidentiality to an aggrieved parent or other individual, and that he had confidence legislators would be judicious in what testimony they allowed into committee. "I would rather have a legislator making that decision than a bureaucrat," Clark said.

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