Public's future access to child abuse information unclear

Starting Nov. 1, Oklahomans may be given a lot more access to information about abuse leading up to the deaths or near deaths of children. On the other hand, it's also possible Oklahomans may receive a lot less access to such information.
by Randy Ellis Published: June 1, 2012

Starting Nov. 1, the public may be given much more information about abuse leading to the deaths or near deaths of Oklahoma children.

However, it's also possible that Oklahomans may receive a lot less information.

Confused?

So are DHS officials.

The situation is unclear right now in light of a law signed Thursday by Gov. Mary Fallin and an ongoing dispute with federal officials who have accused the state of violating privacy restrictions.

“We don't know how it's going to turn out,” said Sheree Powell, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. “This has turned into a national discussion.”

The Oklahoma Legislature has made its wishes clear.

Lawmakers would like the public to have greater access to information about DHS's involvement in serious child abuse cases, said state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, who was co-author of legislation dealing with the issue.

For several years now, DHS and the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth, a state oversight agency, have prepared and released reports upon request in certain child death cases. A report will be prepared if a child has died from child abuse and a parent or guardian has been charged.

Those reports identify prior child abuse complaints regarding the families and what state child welfare workers did in response to those complaints.

The new law would require information to be released in some cases where it has been withheld in the past and require DHS to provide additional types of information, Nelson said.

Once the law takes effect on Nov. 1, the agency won't have to wait for someone to be charged in a child abuse death or near death to release information about the agency's involvement with the family in the months leading up to the incident, he said.

DHS no longer will be limited to releasing reports only when the abuse was inflicted by a parent or guardian, Nelson said. Reports also will be required when the abuse is inflicted by someone the parent or guardian entrusted with the care of the child, such as a relative or baby-sitter, he said.

“We can't ignore those kinds of thing,” Nelson said.

“It still has to be abuse or neglect.”

The agency also is going to be required to start telling the public what specific laws and policies have been violated by DHS workers in their handling of complaints in each of these cases, what personnel actions they have taken in response to violations, and what recommendations they have for policy changes or practice improvements to prevent something similar from happening again.

When a child dies in state custody, detailed information about the caregivers will be required, including information about previous reports of abuse, policy violations, training records and licensing actions taken by the department.

“We want to make this a more thoughtful, reflective process,” Nelson said.

Federal funds could be withheld

Clashing with the state Legislature's drive for more openness is a push by some federal officials to make less information available to the public in child death and near death cases in order to protect the privacy of families.

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by Randy Ellis
Capitol Bureau Reporter
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two...
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