Transparency at DHR

The Baltimore Sun

When 2-year-old Bryanna Harris was found dead two years ago of a methadone overdose, the outcry was as much against the state child protective services division, which had left Bryanna in the care of an irresponsible parent, as against her drug-addicted mom.

To its credit, the agency launched an investigation of what went wrong and made its report public. The head of Baltimore's Department of Social Services resigned, and two caseworkers were later fired; another supervisor was disciplined.

In that case, the Department of Human Resources, which oversees the state's programs for abused and neglected children, made the facts surrounding Bryanna's death available. Yet it was not required to do so. DHR Secretary Brenda Donald decided the public deserved an accounting, but another leader might have chosen to act differently.

That's because Maryland is one of the few states that leaves it to the discretion of child welfare officials whether to release information about kids in their care who are killed or seriously injured, rather than requiring it by law. A scathing report by two child advocacy groups last year blamed Maryland's "misguided and secretive policies" for putting youngsters at risk and shielding officials who fail to protect them.

But Secretary Donald is moving to improve the situation. Legislation introduced at the request of the department would require DHR officials to release information about children under its jurisdiction who are killed or seriously injured. Last week, Ms. Donald testified on its behalf.

The measure wouldn't force agencies to divulge sensitive data that might jeopardize the confidentiality of innocent siblings or their families. But it would bring Maryland's disclosure laws more into line with those of other states.

That would be a modest but important first step toward Gov. Martin O'Malley and Ms. Donald's goal of greater transparency and accountability at an agency responsible for some of the state's most vulnerable youngsters. Legislators would serve the children and the public well by enacting it into law.

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