Archive for Monday, March 1, 2004

Kline proposes investigation into foster care deaths

March 1, 2004

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— Kansas Atty. Gen. Phill Kline is proposing measures that would scrutinize the deaths of children in the foster care system who die from abuse or neglect.

Under his proposal, the state would hire an independent investigator to review the deaths of children who are in state custody or who had been in foster care or the juvenile-justice system within six months of their deaths.

Kline said the investigator would determine whether the actions of state child-welfare officials contributed to harming the children. Those findings would be reported to a legislative oversight committee.

"This is a significant step in the right direction," he said. "I believe our government needs to be as accountable and as transparent as possible."

A 19-month-old boy, Dominic Matz, died last month in a Lawrence foster home. An alarm should have sounded when the medically fragile boy stopped breathing, his mother, Tanya Jones, of Paola, said.

But the alarm didn't go off, and Jones' attorney has accused the foster parents of either not knowing how to hook up the alarm or somehow turning it off. Friends of the foster parents, who were not identified, said they doubted those allegations were true.

The proposal also comes after the December 2002 murder of Brian Edgar, a 9-year-old former foster child whose adoptive parents bound him with duct tape and left him to suffocate. The adoptive parents and baby sitter were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Federal law requires states to have a provision to release records when children die or nearly die of abuse or neglect.

Many child-welfare advocates have lobbied for greater public disclosure, saying openness would improve social services systems designed to protect children.

Lawmakers who plan to introduce Kline's plan in the Senate have been negotiating over how open the state should be with the findings.

Kline said he would continue to push for the state to release records in a child's death, but his current proposal stops short of such disclosure.

"It's progress," Kline said. "I prefer more openness. I think the public ought to have access to the records. But we are proposing more openness."

Under Kline's proposal, the State Child Death Review Board would hire an investigator to look into deaths of children. The investigator would issue reports to the board, the state agency, a legislative oversight committee and local prosecutors in the jurisdiction where the children died.

In closed meetings, the legislative oversight committee would review the report and have access to confidential records. The committee could issue recommendations and vote to release certain documents to the public.

Kline and officials from the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services have discussed his proposal.

"We're not opposed to openness," said Sandra Hazlett, director of children and family policy. "What we don't want is for the privacy of individuals to be compromised."

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