Local residents have a lot of questions about the death last week of a 19-month-old boy who was in foster care.
Why was this child taken from his mother's custody? Were the Lawrence foster parents adequately trained to deal with the child's genetic condition, which caused growth retardation, heart defects and deafness? And, of course, the big question: Was the state somehow negligent in its handling of this case?
These are good questions, and many of them probably have good answers, but those answers aren't likely to come any time soon. That's because officials in the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services are barred by privacy regulations from releasing any information about children in the foster care system. Various people, including the attorney for the child's mother, are offering accounts of the case, but SRS officials cannot respond.
It is, of course, important to maintain the privacy of children who are or have been part of the state's child welfare system, but when one of those children dies, it is a matter of public interest and public responsibility to learn whether that death could have been prevented.
State Sen. David Adkins, R-Leawood, became interested in this issue after a 9-year-old Kansas City boy died in 2002. Three people, including the boy's adoptive mother and father, eventually were convicted of murdering the boy by binding him, head to toe, in duct tape as a punishment.
The state has an obvious interest in preventing such horrible tragedies and that responsibility is heightened when the victims have been in the state's child welfare system. However, because records are closed, the public has no access to information that could guide public policy unless criminal charges are filed.
That needs to change.
According to Adkins, federal law requires the disclosure of records in the case of a death or near-death of any child who is adopted, is in foster care or has been declared a "child in need of care" and placed under state care. Kansas has a vague policy in place that rarely results in records being released, said Adkins, who again is working to formalize a process for disclosure of the documents.
Negotiations currently are under way on a bill introduced by Adkins that would require SRS to release records on deaths and near-deaths of children to the Child Death Review Board. This board, which is under the Kansas Attorney General's Office, routinely reviews the deaths of all children in the state, but it would be required to do an investigation of SRS cases. The investigation report not only would detail the circumstances of the death but also would give recommendations for policy changes that might prevent such occurrences in the future.
Once the review board approved the report, it would be released to the public unless there were special circumstances, such as the possibility it would endanger a criminal prosecution. This process, Adkins agreed, should occur in a timely fashion to allow corrective measures to be made.
State SRS officials still wouldn't be in a position to comment immediately on a child's case, but the information would come out, hopefully within a reasonable time. The point of allowing public scrutiny of the investigative report is not to feed some ghoulish interest but to allow the public to hold its state institutions accountable for any policies that might have contributed to a child's death.
The attorney general and other state officials should welcome this kind of disclosure not only because it will allow the state to publicly explain its actions in a tragic case but because it provides an avenue to improve public policy. Kansas owes the children in its care that kind of oversight.