Secrecy in child welfare: cover up or get better?


Evan Brewer, Caleb Blansett, Adrian Jones: From

Clint Blansett’s 10-year-old son had been dead just a few days when a social worker from the state knocked on the family’s door in south-central Kansas . She wasn’t there to offer condolences after Caleb’s death or ask about his sister, Blansett said. She wanted him to sign a form saying he wouldn’t talk about his son’s death or the Kansas Department for Children and Families. No details about contact the agency had with the family before Caleb’s mom smashed his head with a rock while he slept and then stabbed him seven times.

So begins a story by the Kansas City Star entitled Secrecy inside child welfare system can kill: ‘God help the children of KansasIn it. reporter Laura Bauer describes an agency that chooses to protect itself at the expense of fulfilling its mandate to protect kids. Among the examples included in the story are

  • A DCF deputy director resigned after she was asked to shred notes of meetings about critical cases. Furthermore,  her attempt to implement a systemwide review process for such cases was refused because administrators did not want mistakes documented in writing lest they would be used in court against the agency.
  • For a year and a half, DCF refused to release information about its repeated interactions with the family of Adrian Jones, who was killed by his father and stepmother and fed to their pigs. It was only after the murderers were sentenced to life in prison that DCF reduced 2,000 pages of records that were haphazardly thrown together in what looked like a purposeful attempt to baffle readers. The records, once put in order, revealed multiple investigative errors, particularly three that probably cost Adrian his life.
  • A Wichita television station reported that DCF received several reports of mistreatment of Caleb Blansett, beginning in 2012 and continuing in the months before his death. On August 3, 2017, the Star requested information about these calls and any ensuing investigations. Three months later, DCF responded that it did not have the staff to respond to the request.
  • Just this past September, the body of three-year-old Evan Brewer was found in a cement structure outside the house where his mother and boyfriend were living. He had been missing at least since the previous March. His father claims to have made multiple reports to DPS alleging abuse of Evan.  DCF denied a request from a local TV station for the records relating to these reports.

Kansas law requires that “in the event that child abuse or neglect results in a child fatality or near fatality, reports or records of a child alleged or adjudicated to be in need of care received by the secretary, a law enforcement agency, or any juvenile intake and assessment worker shall become a public record and subject to disclosure.” But unfortunately, the law does not define “reports and records.”

To receive federal money under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), a state must allow “public disclosure of the findings or information about the case of child abuse or neglect which has resulted in a child fatality or near fatality.” Unfortunately, the vagueness of this language allows states to avoid releasing information necessary to identify how the agency failed. In a report entitled State Secrecy and Child Deaths in the U.S., two child advocacy groups found that all states have some sort of public disclosure policy regarding child abuse deaths. However, the report gave 20 states (including the three most populous states) a grade of C or below on these policies based on a variety of criteria, including whether they were encoded in statute, whether the disclosure is mandatory, and the scope and specificity of the information that must be disclosed.

Kansas was actually in the better half of states. It received a “B” from authors of the state secrecy report, mainly because it has a policy, the policy is encoded in statute, and is mandatory, despite the vagueness of the information that must be released. It is worth noting that only 14 states got higher than a B grade. Moreover, the report’s authors also found that states often fail to abide by their own disclosure policies–as when Kansas claimed to lack staff to respond to the request for information about the death of Caleb Blansett.

New Jersey’s child welfare agency, under the guise of protecting children’s privacy, in 2013 adopted a rule that the child welfare agency must release information only “to the extent it is pertinent to the child abuse or neglect that led to the fatality or near fatality.”  Even the under the new tightened rules the agency should have disclosed information about its past interactions with the family of  JoJo Lemons after he became the third sibling in his family to die while sharing a bed with other family members. His  parents were charged with reckless manslaughter and child endangerment, and each pleaded guilty to a count of child endangerment. Nevertheless, CPS concluded that JoJo’s death was not caused by abuse or neglect. Therefore, the agency was not required to release information about its interactions with the family.

In Cleveland, 5-year-old Tenasia McCloud was beaten to death by her mother and her girlfriend on March 17, 2017.  At the time of her death, the child welfare agency had an open case on the family, according to News 5 Cleveland. A social worker had visited the home eight times, including three days before Tenasia was brought to the hospital in cardiac arrest. The paper tried to find out how the agency did not see that the child was in danger. But Cuyahoga County Children and Family Services refused to provide records of agency contacts with the family, citing a rule prohibiting disclosures that might jeopardize a criminal investigation or proceeding. Only five other states have a similar rule, according to the State Secrecy study, suggesting that it is not a necessary requirement. Moreover, two states conversely allow disclosure only if a person is criminally charged or would have been criminally charged if they had not died.

Congress and the states must strengthen disclosure requirements in the event of child maltreatment fatalities or near-fatalities. Congress should amend CAPTA to define specifically what data states must release in the event of a child maltreatment fatality or near fatality. Until that happens, states should amend their own laws to strengthen the disclosure requirements. These disclosures should be required with no exceptions to any member of the public. The information required to be disclosed should include a summary of all past reports on the family or household, whether these reports were investigated, results of all past investigations and reasons for the determinations made; as well as a summary of all cases opened for the family or household, what services were provided, when the cases were closed and the reasons for closure.

Congress and states should also require that a commission of experts review every death or near-death of a child in a family known to the child welfare system. As I stated  in a previous post, the death or severe injury of a child in a family known to the child welfare system should be treated like a plane crash or the loss of the space shuttle Challenger. All such deaths or severe injuries should be reviewed immediately and exhaustively by experts of the highest caliber with access to all agency records regarding contact with the family or household. The report should include recommendations to avoid similar tragedies in the future and should be released to the public with names redacted when necessary to preserve the privacy of innocent children and adults.

The point of requiring release of information and analysis of case history is not mainly to allocate guilt or punishment, although practitioners guilty of egregious errors should be retrained or let go. Rather it is to identify policies or practices that can save children in the future. As the authors of the state secrecy report put it:

Abuse and neglect deaths represent child welfare agencies’ most tragic failures.        Unfortunately, it is often only through such cases that lawmakers and the public learn of systemic inadequacies in child welfare systems. If improvements and reforms are to be achieved, it is vital that the facts about these cases reach the public in a meaningful way.





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