A challenge to secrecy

The Baltimore Sun

Reform of child welfare systems in Maryland and several other states is hampered by "misguided and secretive policies" that restrict disclosure of information about deaths and serious injuries resulting from abuse or neglect, according to a report to be released today by two national child advocacy groups.

Maryland was among 10 states that received an "F" grade because they "place confidentiality above the welfare" of children. The report by the University of San Diego School of Law's Children's Advocacy Institute and Washington- based First Star argues for greater transparency so child welfare systems can be held accountable and future tragedies can be averted.

"Public access to the facts will protect children and save lives," said Emily Reinig of the Child Advocacy Institute and the lead author of the report.

Maryland received a failing grade because its laws and policies allow disclosure of information only in abuse or neglect cases in which criminal charges have been filed. Even then, administrators can withhold information at their discretion. And court hearings to discuss child abuse or neglect allegations in Maryland are closed to the public, the report states.

Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald, who became the agency's head early last year, said she does not believe the failing grade is deserved based on the way that her office has conducted its affairs since she took over.

The department was forthcoming in owning up to its failures this year after a mother was charged in the death of her little girl, Bryanna Harris, who swallowed methadone, Donald said. Five social services staff members were fired or disciplined. A week ago, the girl's mother, Vernice Harris, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and received a suspended sentence.

"That grade would not be applicable for this administration," Donald said. "I operate under the highest degree of transparency. We will not hide behind the law if it is appropriate to share the details."

An article in Sunday's Sun examined how the state handles abuse and neglect investigations in Baltimore, the jurisdiction with the most cases. The article detailed how an understaffed social services agency struggles to protect children in a tough, inner-city environment where drugs are rampant and crushing poverty puts children at risk.

Ammeejill Whitlock, child welfare director for Maryland-based Advocates for Children and Youth, said she agrees with the criticisms in the report being released today.

"The report shows that secrecy is preventing the Maryland public from understanding how really bad our child welfare system is," Whitlock said.

Reinig said Maryland's restrictive laws and disclosure policies appear to be in conflict with a federal statute that requires states to make more information available about how they deal with abuse and neglect cases that lead to death or serious injury.

"We want to be able to obtain information in a predictable, consistent and enforceable manner," she said, adding that access needs to be spelled out in state law rather than left up to agency administrators.

Amy Harfield, executive director of First Star, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of abused and neglected children, said such information is vital to reforming troubled child welfare systems.


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