When abuse or neglect results in the death of a child in the state's foster care system, the public has a right to know what happened, according to the Kansas attorney general's opinion.
In the past, foster care records had been considered confidential.
But questions surrounding the 2002 death of 9-year-old Brian Edgar prompted lawmakers this year to pass legislation designed to open the records.
Edgar, a former foster child, suffocated after his adoptive parents bound him with duct tape and stuffed a sock in his mouth. The family lived in Overland Park.
"We welcome the attorney general's opinion -- we're the ones who asked for it," said John Badger, chief legal counsel at the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. "We are not opposed to openness."
Last month, SRS asked Atty. Gen. Phill Kline's office to clarify several parts of the law. According to the attorney general's opinion, the new law applies only to:
- Children killed or almost killed while in foster care. It does not apply to adopted children.
- Deaths or near deaths known to involve abuse or neglect.
The new law is retroactive. It can be applied to deaths and near deaths that occurred before the law's July 1 effective date.
Records involving private communications between parents and their attorneys, doctors, or therapists will remain confidential under the new law.
Child advocates praised the attorney general's opinion.
"It's a broad interpretation, especially the retroactivity part," said Gary Brunk, executive director at Kansas Action for Children. "It's certainly a step -- a small step -- in the right direction."
Brunk and other advocates have long complained that confidentiality provisions within the law made it difficult to investigate complaints about the state's privatized foster care system.
The impact of the new law remains to be seen.
"The number of cases we're talking about here is fairly small ... very few," Badger said.
About 5,000 children are in the state's foster care system. Each year about five children die.
31 deaths since 1998
"Usually, it's natural causes or car accidents," Badger said.
State records show that 31 children have died in foster care since 1998. Of those deaths, three -- one in 2000, two in 2001 -- were attributed to abuse or neglect.
The new law does not apply to the Edgar case because he had been adopted and was no longer in foster care.
And it does not apply in the case of Dominic Matz, a medically fragile 19-month-old boy who died Feb. 15 while in the care of a Lawrence foster family, because the family was not suspected of abuse or neglect.
Badger said that since the law took effect July 1, his office has not received any requests for records in cases involving deaths or near deaths of children in foster care.
Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, fought efforts to open adoption records, fearing some families would be reluctant to adopt. Instead, she proposed giving a five-legislator committee the authority to review records and decide which would be made public.
"It didn't pass," Landwehr said, "but I intend to bring it up again next year. These things need to be looked in to, we need to know what happened. This isn't about sensationalizing what happened, it's about making sure it doesn't happen again."
Legislators also rejected a bill that would have charged the state's Child Death Review Board with investigating deaths and near deaths of children in foster care.
The board is administered by the attorney general's office.