By Alan Judd
Georgia lawmakers said they were shining more light on the state's care of abused and neglected children.
What they really did was just the opposite.
With near-unanimous votes, lawmakers in 2009 restored a cloak of secrecy that limits public scrutiny of the state's child-welfare system. Many lawmakers apparently didn't realize they had undermined two decades of transparency about the deaths of children in state care, and even the legislation's sponsor now says it was a bad idea.
The change attracted little notice at the time. But it recently came into focus with news that 152 children died last year despite supervision by Georgia's child protection agency. The deaths appear to have dramatically increased since 2011, although state officials say they cannot be certain that year's count of 92 was correct.
The restriction on information available to the public may protect the privacy of deceased children and their parents. But it may also conceal the names of relatives responsible for fatal abuse or neglect. At the same time, it could keep the public from learning the extent to which the state's policies or its employees failed to prevent some deaths.
"When you have all the facts out in the open and everybody can look at them, you better understand how your system works and how you can improve it," said Tom Rawlings, the state's child advocate under former Gov. Sonny Perdue from 2007 to 2010.
The public, Rawlings said last week, deserves "a full understanding of who is it who's getting hurt and dying, where do they live, what are the circumstances of how they died -- what are the facts of what happened?"
In 1990, news articles about the deaths of children under state supervision convinced lawmakers that such questions deserved answers. They ordered the state Division of Family and Children's Services, commonly known as DFCS, to reverse a decades-old policy and release files on deceased children as it would any other documents covered by open-records laws.
Many files showed repeated errors in judgment that left children with their abusive families or that placed them in dangerous foster homes. The files also brought to light the overwhelming caseloads assigned to many social workers, who simply couldn't keep up with all they children they were supposed to protect.
Ten years later, news reports on even more deaths in the child protection system prompted a reaffirmation of the openness policy, along with additional reforms intended to enhance oversight. Transparency became a key element of policing the system, said former Gov. Roy Barnes, who was in office at the time. At one point in 2000, Barnes asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to bring him DFCS files so he could study the deaths of several children himself.
"If you can't get the records, you can't hold folks accountable," Barnes said in an interview last week. "One of the ways you make sure you are not criticized is to make sure people can't get the records."
When the matter came up in 2009, DFCS was asking legislators to make Georgia law conform to a federal statute that requires states to release information on deaths and life-threatening injuries caused by child abuse or neglect.
The federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act requires states to release the age and gender of victims of serious abuse or neglect. But the act does not otherwise specify what information must be made public. It exempts from disclosure most medical information. But it lets states decide whether to publicize a child's name, dates of birth and death, and other personal details.
The original version of Georgia's 2009 bill, drafted in a Senate committee, maintained the openness in state law. That changed on Feb. 24, 2009, when the bill came to the Senate floor.
The sponsor, Sen. Seth Harp (R-Columbus), offered an amendment: "Any identifying information ... shall be redacted to preserve the confidentiality of the child, other children in the household and the child's parents, guardians, custodians or caretakers."
Specifically, the amendment prohibited the release of names, race, ethnicity, addresses and telephone numbers. To cover unforeseen material, it also generally barred disclosure of "any other information that is privileged or confidential."
Both the amendment and the bill passed unanimously in the Senate. Four weeks later, the House concurred with just one dissenting vote. After another month, Perdue signed the bill into law.
In an interview last week, Harp, who left the Senate in 2010, said he recalled few details about the bill. Most likely, he said, he was presenting language given to him by the state Department of Human Services, which oversees DFCS.
"That would have to have come from the department," Harp said. "That's not something any individual senator would have come up with."
The bill's passage allowed DFCS to substantially scale back the information it gives the public about abuse and neglect cases.
For example, a file on the death of a Muscogee County child, obtained recently by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was rendered virtually incomprehensible by the agency's heavy editing.
"All of the children have the same -- , -- , except -- ," the redacted report says. " -- is -- and is allegedly on probation. -- stated that -- has little to no involvement with -- . -- had limited comments during the home visit."
Throughout the 600-page file, DFCS officials used heavy black markers to obscure the name and age of the deceased child, as well as information about other children and adults who shared the child's home. They covered personal pronouns that denoted a person's gender. They marked through the name of a gas station where someone was seeking a job; the person's name and relationship to the deceased child also were redacted.
And in a section of the file apparently dealing with a former prison inmate who lived in the home, the officials colored in black ink over a picture of the person's face.
A separate DFCS report said the agency mishandled the child's case. But with the extensive redactions, it's impossible to determine how.
Barnes described such efforts to maintain secrecy as "bad policy."
"Openness sometimes is painful stuff," he said. "But overall it works -- it absolutely works. Particularly when it deals with the lives and the heath of minor children, it seems to me that's important."
Even Harp, who sponsored the 2009 bill, disavowed the measure's effects.
"I think it's wrong now, in hindsight," he said. "They need oversight, especially in the death of a child."
The 2009 measure was already on the books when the current top officials at DFCS began their jobs, said Ravae Graham, a spokeswoman for the agency. She said they have no idea why legislators instructed them to withhold the information -- but they will continue to do so.
"It's the law," she said.
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