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.

House Committee advances bill to protect trafficking victims from prosecution

A bill meant to make it easier for sex trafficking victims to avoid being prosecuted for prostitution is advancing through the Missouri House.

Representative Mary Elizabeth Coleman presents House Bill 397, the first bill of her legislative career, to the House Committee on General Laws. (photo; Mike Lear, Missouri House Communications)

Missouri law makes it an affirmative defense for a minor charged with prostitution to have been acting under coercion at the time of the crime.  Under House Bill 397 it would be an affirmative defense that the defendant was under the age of 18.  It would also allow a person guilty of prostitution while a minor to apply to the courts to have records of that crime expunged.

“Right now not all of our laws treat victims as victims,” Jessica Seitz with Missouri Kids First told the House Committee on General Laws.  “This, right now, is essentially a loophole where a young person can be charged with prostitution when they’re a victim of trafficking, and this can be even more traumatic.  Arrest and prosecution can further traumatize a victim which prevents victims from seeking assistance.”

The bill is sponsored by freshman state lawmaker Mary Elizabeth Coleman (R-Arnold).

“This is a common sense provision in the first part of the bill that says if you can’t consent to a tattoo or to have your ears pierced, that you cannot consent to prostitution,” said Coleman.

Coleman told the committee it can be difficult for minors to prove coercion because trafficking victims have often been forced to abuse drugs.

“By the time that she’s arrested it’s difficult to untangle and prove force or coercion because at that point she may be paying off fines and paying off her drug use,” said Coleman.

The bill would also add some offenses related to child abuse and sex trafficking to the state law’s definition of “pattern of criminal gang activity.”  Advocates say the frequency of trafficking operations being conducted by gangs has increased in recent years.

Office of Child Advocate Director Kelly Schultz spoke in support of that provision.  She told the committee about the handling of a case when a child in the state’s foster system was found to have been trafficked.

“Somebody actively recruited that child, somebody advertised that child, somebody got them a hotel room, and somebody enforced payment.  Johns weren’t just willingly throwing money at young kids to have sex.  Somebody was enforcing the payment as well.  It was very much an organized crime,” said Schultz.

Schultz stressed to lawmakers that in a 2013 nationwide raid by the FBI, about 60-percent of the children recovered were involved in the child welfare system and many had open foster care cases.

“I always tell the public these children are our responsibility, but when I’m talking to you guys I am being very literal.  These children – 60-percent of them – are literally our responsibility,” said Schultz.

The committee voted unanimously to advance the bill.  It is scheduled to be considered Monday by another committee, and then it could go before the full House for debate.