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Monday, November 10, 2014

Ind. Gov't. - "State government still has a long way to go when it comes to transparency in how well we are protecting our children"

"Why do we still learn so little about abuse and neglect cases? State law says such records should be open, but that's not the reality." That is the headline to this long Nov. 3rd commentary by reporter Virginia Black in the South Bend Tribune. Here are some quotes:

But the high-profile deaths of two South Bend children this summer — and some other cases, such as the case of Josiah, who we might not hear about at all — should remind us that state government still has a long way to go when it comes to transparency in how well we are protecting our children.

Last year, I wrote a story about a young Plymouth mother who nearly killed her baby, who was not breathing when an ambulance arrived at the house. The family acknowledged that when the infant was taken to Memorial Hospital, doctors told them he was in critical condition, and he spent nearly a week on a ventilator. Police verified that hospital officials told them, too, the boy was in critical condition and on a ventilator.

Indiana law provides for records to be released, minus certain identifying information, in a child's "fatality or near-fatality." The problem is, it does not describe what a "near-fatality" is.

I asked for the record surrounding the boy's near-fatality and was denied.

DCS attorney John Wood wrote in his response that federal law defines a near-fatality as "an act that, as certified by a physician, places the child in serious or critical condition." But because state definitions are murky, Wood wrote, DCS added its own definition: a child must have been placed on a ventilator in an intensive care unit.

The medical records from the Marshall County office, Woods said, "do not indicate" the child was ever on a ventilator, and "we found no record of a physician certification that the child's condition was ever classified as critical or serious. ... we must reaffirm our initial conclusion that we have no information regarding a near fatality case concerning the child."

More recently, The Tribune requested the documents surrounding the August death of 11-month-old Micahyah Crockett and those of his sister, Alaiyah, who was 14 months old in February when she was seriously hurt. She's now "in a vegetative state." After her son's death, authorities say, the children's mother admitted she also caused her daughter's injuries.

St. Joseph juvenile magistrate Graham Polando issued an order last week preliminarily denying the release of most of those records but setting a hearing for Friday, for The Tribune and WSBT to object to the court's redactions.

Polando wrote, "While the Department (DCS) alleged that (Alaiyah) suffered a 'near fatality,' the Magistrate cannot find that she has." He, too, cited the lack of a physician's certification, and that although "the medical records certainly indicate that (the girl's) physicians concluded (she) was in a 'serious or critical condition' ... they do not appear to have concluded she was in such condition based on 'an act.'"

Regarding the release of the documents involving Micahyah, Polando notes the apparently contradictory statutes and preliminarily ruled that no medical or law enforcement documents, or DCS reference to those, be released.

Citing a lack of statutory guidance on previous DCS involvement with a sibling, Polando writes, "the records regarding the Department's 'previous contact' with Mother regarding (Alaiyah) remain protected."

After public calls statewide for more transparency and more oversight two years ago, the General Assembly added to the DCS ombudsman's small staff, set the stage for strengthened or newly created child fatality review teams in each county, and ultimately created a DCS oversight committee headed by state Sen. Carlin Yoder from Middlebury and including state Sen. John Broden from South Bend.

Last spring, I asked Broden, not only a state lawmaker interested in child welfare issues but also a former DCS attorney himself, whether he had ever seen the release of information surrounding a "near-fatality." He thought a moment before acknowledging he had not.

Federal and state confidentiality laws are meant to protect the children involved from later humiliation, authorities say. But who is really protected, when we can legally learn whether our neighbor has been accused of smoking marijuana but we are not aware that claims he abused or neglected a child are substantiated?

The public must have confidence that when cases of child abuse and neglect fall through the cracks — and of course they sometimes will — that those cases are scrutinized for what we can learn. Sometimes, a DCS caseworker, a CASA worker, judge or therapist might have misjudged a parent's mental state. Perhaps teachers or relatives did not report something they suspected. Maybe a doctor looking at a tragic injury believed a young mother's story that her toddler injured herself.

Legislators must clarify apparently conflicting interests in what the public should learn about the circumstances in which we have failed a child, and I hope they consider doing so in the next General Assembly session.

Austin Kinder, the Mishawaka man accused of nearly killing the baby just weeks ago, shuffled into court Thursday in jail garb and chains. We know from court records that he is scheduled for trial in February, and that he also has pending charges from 2013 of domestic battery and drug possession. DCS did not respond last week to a request for information about Josiah's near-fatality, so we do not know whether the agency was involved last year, whether Kinder was ordered to seek any sort of treatment or whether the child had ever been removed from Kinder's care.

But three years after Tramelle Sturgis' tragic death, and for the well-being of the other potential Josiahs among us, it's time for all of us to insist on the transparency we profess to believe in.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on November 10, 2014 03:05 PM
Posted to Indiana Government