Rep. Christian Coomer and his son Christian Jr. vote on a bill Wednesday February 26, 2014. Later House Bill 923, sponsored by Coomer, passed in the House. The bill is designed to better protect children from abuse and to improve the state’s response to it. BRANT SANDERLIN /BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM
Photo: Brant Sanderlin
Photo: Brant Sanderlin

House approves bill to rein in DFCS secrecy

The secrecy enshrouding Georgia’s child-welfare system preserves the privacy not only of children who die from abuse or neglect, but of state officials who fail to protect them.

That would change under a bill approved Wednesday by the state House of Representatives.

By a 168-0 vote, the House passed House Bill 923, which, in essence, repeals confidentiality rules that lawmakers quietly imposed five years ago. The measure gives the public access to vast portions of government files on deceased children who had come into contact with the state Division of Family and Children Services. Officials have closely guarded much of that data, thwarting efforts to assess DFCS’ performance in child-death cases.

The bill’s chances for final passage in the Senate seem good; it has the “full support” of Gov. Nathan Deal, said the sponsor, Rep. Christian Coomer, the governor’s House floor leader.

The bill also revamps the state’s Child Fatality Review Panel, which has the primary responsibility for examining death cases with an eye toward preventive measures.

The bill’s introduction followed a series of articles in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that documented the state’s failure to adequately protect children from abuse or neglect. The AJC’s examination of 86 deaths from 2012 found that apparent errors by DFCS workers contributed to at least 25 of the fatalities.

But the agency excised vital details before releasing documents to the public: information that would identify victims and their families, as well as descriptions of how DFCS workers handled previous reports of abuse or neglect in those families.

Coomer, R-Cartersville, said his bill clarifies “very confusing” privacy rules related to the DFCS files.

“The intent is to give greater public access to records of public agencies,” Coomer said, “creating greater transparency and creating greater public scrutiny of those agencies and their activities.”

Increased openness could help save children at risk of harm, Coomer said.

“I’m not naive enough to think any law can really stop all child abuse or end all suffering,” he said. “But we should be ashamed if we don’t try.”

Fourteen years ago, lawmakers opened files on any child who died within five years of his or her family’s interaction with DFCS. For most of a decade, DFCS routinely released entire case files after many deaths.

But in 2009, with little debate or discussion and only a smattering of opposition, lawmakers cut off that access, forbidding the agency from disclosing information that would identify deceased children or members of their families. The change came through a last-minute amendment to a low-profile bill; the sponsor, former Sen. Seth Harp, R-Columbus, has said he didn’t know where the amendment came from — and that he now considers it a mistake.

The 2009 amendment allows DFCS to conceal details on decisions to leave children at home following maltreatment investigations, even if those children later die from abuse or neglect. In 2010, for example, the agency took into custody an Atlanta child, Jeremiah De’Shawn Tucker, 4, who was in the hospital with asthma. Soon afterward, DFCS workers disregarded a doctor’s warning that going home would put Jeremiah at risk of death. But in files released under an Open Records Act request, DFCS redacted the reasons for both decisions, as well as why its workers didn’t check on the boy again before he died in 2012.

The Journal-Constitution’s investigation found that DFCS applied a broad interpretation to the 2009 amendment. The agency redacted victims’ names, relatives’ names, personal pronouns, the words “mother” and “father,” the names of law enforcement agencies and hospitals, and references to drug use by victims’ parents. In the file on a Muscogee County child who died in 2009, DFCS officials even removed the name of a gas station where someone in the child’s household had sought a job. In the same file, in a section apparently dealing with a former prison inmate who lived in the home, officials colored in black ink over a picture of the person’s face.

Coomer’s bill would allow DFCS to withhold only a few types of information: medical and mental health records, confidential documents created by an attorney, the identity of anyone who reports suspected maltreatment, and the name of any child who suffers “a near-fatality.”

The bill would give more importance to public interest in how DFCS performs its duties than to protecting the perceived privacy rights of deceased children and the adults responsible for their deaths, said Tom Rawlings, a former director of Georgia’s Office of the Child Advocate.

“This looks like a much better balance,” Rawlings said in an interview. “It leaves less wiggle room for (DFCS) to redact information.”

Coomer said Wednesday that placing the child fatality review agency under the Georgia Bureau of Investigation would help the panel “carry out its investigative function with greater authority.” The panel now operates out of the Child Advocate’s Office, which has a far smaller staff than the GBI and lacks law-enforcement powers.

HB 923 is one of two major legislative initiatives regarding child welfare this year. The other, Senate Bill 350 by Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, would outsource foster care, adoption and other child welfare services to private agencies.

The governor has also proposed spending $27 million over three years to hire 525 new child-protection workers and supervisors — an increase of 26 percent.

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