Information Denied, Children Endangered

Jenifer McKim, New England Center for Investigative Reporting

It is a federal mandate for states to publicly disclose information about child fatalities caused by abuse or neglect so that such tragedies can be prevented in the future.

But obtaining that grim data can be difficult because of the time it takes and money it costs.

A new report tabulating and describing publicly, for the first time, the deaths of children linked to abuse and neglect between 2009 and 2013 in Massachusetts grew out of a public records request filed under the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which requires states to provide certain information about the children’s histories when asked.

INFOGRAPHIC: An interactive look at 110 Massachusetts child abuse and neglect deaths

The request, filed by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting to the Department of Children and Families, took months of negotiations and nearly $4,500 to produce what ultimately totaled 110 cases.

That’s a price too high and a process too complex to allow the kind of public scrutiny of data that might save children’s lives, say many child advocates.

“When it is so difficult, many groups will simply give up, especially when they don’t have the resources,” said Christina Riehl, a senior staff attorney with the nonprofit Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law.

Indeed, nationwide, many states fail to provide adequate public information about child abuse and neglect deaths that is required under CAPTA, according to the advocacy institute’s recent report titled “Shame on Us,” which faults the federal government’s lack of oversight of the estimated 1,500 maltreatment deaths a year.

READ MORE: Out of the shadows: Shining light on state failures to learn from rising child abuse and neglect deaths

Advocates and officials nationwide are pushing for more government transparency related to maltreatment deaths. Change can’t happen and fixes can’t be made if the public is denied information, said Michael Petit, an advisor for the Washington, D.C.-based child advocacy group Every Child Matters and a member of the new federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.

Petit said the public is denied information by government officials “who use confidentiality laws as a shield to protect agencies.”

CAPTA documents provided to NECIR by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families in response to a Public Records Law request.

Massachusetts receives about $500,000 annually through CAPTA for improving child protective systems. Yet the commonwealth is one of only two states in the U.S. that did not provide timely child fatality data for the federal government’s report, “Child Maltreatment 2013.” State officials attributed the delays largely to waiting for death information from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which has notoriously long delays in its system.

The New England Center’s effort to obtain fatality data illustrates the protracted challenges in extracting such information.

The nonprofit news center first requested the data in December, 2013, filing a public records request for three years worth of child fatality information — including the age and gender of child who died,  previous abuse and neglect reports involving the child, and any state services provided to that child.

A month later, the Center revised its request, asking for just one year of data in hope of speeding up the process. But DCF said it would need to charge $2,023 to search for records and redact confidential information.

The Center appealed the fee in April 2014 to the Massachusetts Secretary of State, arguing that the high price tag posed a “significant barrier” to obtaining information and was tantamount to a denial — an appeal soon rejected.

After several more months of negotiations, NECIR joined forces with the Boston Globe and expanded the request to five years’ worth of CAPTA data. By the summer of 2014, the state issued a new price of $4,468 — estimating the data collection and redactions would take 123 hours to complete. The payment was made in August.

But by January, 2015, when Gov. Deval Patrick was handing the reins of the state to newly elected Gov. Charles Baker, DCF had still not released any information.
When the Center contacted the new Baker administration in January to call attention to the long-delayed public records request, the state apologized. But, internal DCF emails obtained by NECIR, show officials discussed the timing of a release through a political lens.

In one email, DCF chief of staff Ryan FitzGerald said to several DCF communications staff that top officials likely wouldn’t be too concerned about the release of data from the prior administration because, “anything that comes out of it won’t reflect on them,’’ he wrote. “And on the flip side, I’m concerned it only looks significantly worse for us and the previous administration, the longer this drags on.”

In the end, the state released the first three years of data on Jan. 21 and the next two years of data in phases through the end of March. However, DCF declined to provide any record of allegations of abuse and neglect that were dismissed by the state before a child died, citing legal restraints.

In April, NECIR appealed this decision to the Secretary of State, claiming such information is key to learning about what went wrong in cases where the state knew about a troubled family but dismissed concerns. Shawn Williams, supervisor of records,ruled on Sept. 14 that the state either has to provide the information or provide “with specificity” why records are being withheld. DCF quickly responded – again denying the request. NECIR plans to appeal again.

It does appear state officials plan to be more open with at least limited information in the future. In July, Baker announced “administration-wide measures to improve transparency and public access to government records and information, including a reduced and streamlined fee structure and more efficient communications and responses to requesters.”

Earlier this month, NECIR requested 2014 and 2015 fatalities data. State officials said results should be provided in eight weeks and – considering the time it took to provide earlier data — the information will be free.

Originally published September 19, 2015 New England Center for Investigative Reporting