- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Maryland is among the 10 worst states when it comes to releasing information to the public about child abuse in cases involving death or serious injury, thus creating serious barriers to reform, a national report has concluded.

Maryland received a grade of F in the study, which is being released today by two national child advocacy groups, First Star and the Children’s Advocacy Institute of the University of San Diego School of Law.

The report found that Maryland policy is written in “severely restrictive conditional language.” For example, Maryland is one of a few states that require criminal charges to be filed against a suspected abuser before information can be made public in cases involving death or serious injury.

“That’s really restrictive,” said Elisa Weichel, administrative director for the Children’s Advocacy Institute. “We found maybe a handful of states, maybe less than five, that have that condition.”

The report, titled “State Secrecy and Child Deaths in the U.S.,” examined all 50 states and the District. It found that the majority of states fail to release adequate information about fatal and near-fatal child-abuse cases.

Only a small number of states fully comply with the intent of federal law that mandates public disclosure of deaths or serious injuries, the study found.

The report also criticized Maryland policy because it allows information to be withheld if state officials determine that disclosure could harm the best interests of a child or the child’s siblings.

“We feel policy should be mandatory — no discretion,” Miss Weichel said. “This information has to be provided.”

Elyn Jones, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, said it wouldn’t surprise her if Maryland received an F grade in the report because the agency has long been criticized by reporters and lawyers for being too restrictive with information.

However, Miss Jones said the current head of the department, Brenda Donald, is committed to being more open.

“Bottom line, she will be working to be more open and more approachable as it relates to these types of issues,” Miss Jones said of the agency’s secretary, who has held the position for about a year.

As an example, Miss Jones cited the public acknowledgment of widespread failures that resulted in the death of a 2-year-old Baltimore child in June as evidence that Miss Donald was pushing for more transparency in the agency. Five social services employees were disciplined in the death of Bryanna Harris, the daughter of a drug addict. Bryanna died after swallowing methadone.

In Maryland, attorneys for foster children long have complained about the lack of openness.

Mitchell Mirviss, an attorney for Venable LLP who has worked on cases involving foster children in Baltimore since 1985, said sealing important case records is “a grave problem here in Maryland.”

“The public does not have access to information concerning serious incidents of child abuse or issues concerning the treatment of children while they’re in foster care,” he said. “As a result, the problems that are endemic in the system are not adequately monitored or addressed.”

The Maryland Department of Human Resources has close to 10,000 children in out-of-home care, children who are not living with their parents because of neglect. About 6,000 of those children are from Baltimore.

Miss Jones said the policy of waiting until charges are filed in fatal and serious injury cases was made out of concern that making the information public — before the suspect is charged — could harm law-enforcement investigations. She also said the department has to balance how the information could harm other children in the victim’s family.

“She’s looking at ways to work within that delicate balance and still speak to the well-being of all those that we are charged with protecting,” Miss Jones said of the department head.

Ameejill Whitlock, child welfare director of Advocates for Children and Youth based in Baltimore, agreed with Maryland’s failing grade.

Although she commended Miss Donald for being open about Bryanna’s death, she said advocates are frequently reduced to word of mouth about what’s going on in serious child abuse cases.

“It does impede reform when this type of information is not made public,” Ms. Whitlock said.

Other states receiving an F are Georgia, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Vermont.

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