Winter 2000

Fighting to Break the Barrier of Confidentiality

When children in the child welfare system die, reporters work to find out why.

By Jane Hansen
In 1989, my newspaper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and I went to court to gain access to the records of children who had died after coming to the attention of our child welfare department, the Department of Family and Children Services (DFACS) in Georgia. We did this only after being told federal confidentiality laws and regulations forbid the release of the files. We argued in court that they did not. We furthermore argued that the public’s need to know what happened to children who had died after coming under the state’s protection outweighed any privacy interests of a deceased child. The court agreed and ordered the state to give me the complete files.

In 1990, in response to a series of stories I wrote based on the records, the governor and legislature passed seven laws to reform the child welfare system, including one that was to loosen confidentiality laws when a child had died. Specifically, it set in law a process by which a reporter could go to court and argue for the records as part of “bona fide research.” The language tracked federal confidentiality regulations.

Ten years later, we decided to look at how well these decade-old laws were working.

Again, I asked DFACS for the records of all children in Georgia who had died after someone had reported them for abuse or neglect. I assumed that based on the 1990 law, and the previous court decision, we would have no problem. I was wrong. DFACS fought harder than ever to keep the records closed. So again we sued, and after a protracted legal battle we won a second time. In the end, the state turned over to me the unredacted records of 844 children who had died during a six-year period.

This time I wrote another series of articles that were published last year. And again, the governor and legislature passed new laws, this time four of them. One law created the position of an ombudsman to oversee the Department of Family and Children Services. But most significantly, in my view, the governor pushed through a law that for the first time puts the records of these deceased children under the state’s Open Records Act. Since the law went into effect, reporters from my newspaper and others in Georgia have requested the records of individual children and received them. Perhaps, this time, the law will work.

I was very fortunate to have the luxury of time and a newspaper that backed my efforts to get these records. But over the years we have also received a lot of support from the public, legislators and two governors who believed that confidentiality did more to protect the department from public scrutiny than protect children from abuse or neglect. I personally believe that confidentiality and the lack of accountability it breeds contribute directly to the deaths of children.

Jane Hansen is a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her series on child welfare can be found at www.accessatlanta.com/partners/ ajc/read/children/index.html.

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