Advocates: Ease confidentiality rules in child death investigations to save other kids’ lives

Each year hundreds of children’s deaths are investigated by child fatality review panels.  Those panels’ meetings, reports, and records are kept confidential, and state officials say that could be costing more children’s lives.

Representative Hannah Kelly (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The state House is being asked to make public certain information from those panels so it can be studied to identify trends or areas where prevention efforts can be focused, and to look for ways to change state policies to better protect children.

House Bill 877 would make non-identifiable aggregate data on child fatalities public and give the Director of the Department of Social Services discretion on whether to release identifiable data.

The bill is sponsored by Representative Hannah Kelly (R-Mountain Grove), who said when she was presented with the idea she remembered a child fatality that occurred in her district.  A woman who had been struggling with addiction and had only recently been allowed to have her child back in her home rolled over on that child in her sleep and the child suffocated.

“I think in his memory I continue to pursue ways that we can get to the bottom of why our processes and why our rules within our departments lead to unfortunate situations.  How do we get to the bottom of the ‘why,’ so that we can help children have a chance at a great future?”

Emily van Schenkhof is the Executive Director of the Children’s Trust Fund and a member of child fatality panels at the state and local level.  As such, she has reviewed dozens of cases.

“Reviewing these cases – these giant files of the tiny little human beings that deserve lives that were so much better than what they got – changes you as a human being.  When you see this type of suffering it changes you, it affects you, it hurts you, and my only response to seeing that sort of suffering is to say, ‘Geeze, we can do better.’” Van Schenkhof told the House Committee on Children and Families.  “These situations are going to teach us something and we are going to learn from it and we are going to protect other children … and so this bill is a reflection of how we can get better at looking at the data around child fatalities so that our state can get better at preventing child fatalities.”

Van Schenkhof told the committee she would like to for example, create a map of child fatalities that might reveal a concentration of them in a given part of Missouri.  Then efforts to lower child fatalities could target those areas.  Under the current confidentiality restrictions on that data she can access the data to create such a map but she can’t share it with anyone, rendering it useless.

“The Children’s Trust Fund, we’re a foundation, so we would like to be able to issue grants to communities that have higher rates of child fatalities.  Well, we can’t do that because we can’t release any of the information, so the counties that have some of the highest rates don’t even know they have the highest rates,” said van Schenkhof.

Van Schenkhof said it’s also difficult for people in positions such as hers to keep track of what information they learned from investigations, which they can’t talk about and could be in violation of the law if they do; and what information they learned from the news or other public sources.

Kelly Schultz is the Director of the Office of Child Advocate.  She also supports the bill, but stressed to lawmakers the importance of making sure that no data could be released that could identify specific cases.

“If there is only one type of fatality that occurs in a county, releasing that information about that one fatality, even if we don’t release a name, would certainly release identifiable information, and that’s not what we’re after,” said Schultz.  “What we are after is talking about trends and patterns both at a state level and at a regional level.”

Schultz said rules must be designed so that the Director of DSS can weigh each case.

“I don’t want to harm surviving siblings, I don’t want to mess up criminal trials, and I’m afraid the more prescriptive we get, the harder it is,” said Schultz.

Though part of the goal is to use aggregate data to scrutinize state policies, Kelly said the effort is not about criticism.

“I don’t ever want to negatively reflect on the Department as much as I want to stress the importance that we constantly have bold and courageous conversations about what we do to make sure that our guidance from the state level is protecting the children who are in state’s care,” said Kelly.

The committee has not voted on the bill.

Bill containing several provisions to protect children becomes law

Lawmakers and children’s advocates are praising the signing into law of legislation with several provisions meant to help the state better care for children, including those who have been abused or trafficked.

Representative Diane Franklin chairs the House Committee on Children and Families. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Emily van Schenkhof with Missouri KidsFirst called Senate Bill 160 the best piece of legislation to come out of the 2017 regular legislative session.

“We came together as the General Assembly, outside advocates, [and] the governor’s office to pass some really important legislation,” said van Schenkhof.  “It really was, I think, an example of how when we prioritize children we really can come together to make good policy decisions and makes sure we get things across the finish line that make our state safer for children.”

Van Schenkhof said one of the most important pieces of SB 160 prevented the destruction of some 11,000 records related to cases of children that were abused but the perpetrator could not be identified.  An appeals court ruling put those records in jeopardy.

“That was an extremely time-sensitive piece of the bill,” said van Schenkhof.  “Children’s safety could have been at risk if we didn’t have this information in our system.”

SB 160 was carried in the House by Representative Diane Franklin (R-Camdenton).  She said the ability to retain such records allows investigators to detect patterns in cases of abuse or neglect.

“The first time that, perhaps, it’s reported or it becomes known to the department, the child may be only three months old and it’s just been identified that abuse has taken place.  If we’re not able to retain those records, then let’s say they’re two years old and there’s abuse and we’re not able to see that there’s a pattern in that child’s life of who they’re with that is resulting in harm to the child,” said Franklin.

Another key provision in SB 160 changes the definition of child abuse and neglect to include trafficking.  Van Schenkhof said under state law, the ability for the state Children’s Division to get involved in a case hinged on a perpetrator having care, custody, and control of a child.

“In trafficking cases often times that caretaking role, or that care, custody, and control piece is missing, and so Children’s Division can’t provide the sort of protective interventions that are necessary,” said van Schenkhof.

Franklin said the provision to change those definitions was “paramount.”  It also makes available to Missouri more federal money, and aids in prosecution of both state and federal cases by aligning Missouri’s definition with that of federal law.

SB 160 also establishes the Foster Care Bill of Rights, to establish in law how foster children will be treated and how their rights will be protected.  Another provision allows children entering foster care to be placed with people who are not related to, but have a close relationship with, the child or the child’s family – otherwise known as “kinship placements.”

SB 160 also extends through 2023 the existence of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect.

Van Schenkhof praised the work done by Franklin on this legislation.

“Diane Franklin was just a rock star.  She worked so hard on this bill.  She really left no stone unturned.  She really understood that kids’ lives were going to be at risk if we were going to lose these 11,000 records,” said van Schenkhof.

Governor Eric Greitens (R) signed SB 160 into law last week.  The provisions dealing with the definitions of abuse and neglect and with retention of abuse records became effective immediately.

Note:  Emily van Schenkhof’s last day with Missouri KidsFirst was last week.  In July she begins work as the Executive Director of the Children’s Trust Fund.