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Shining light on child welfare
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Sometimes it takes someone from the outside making a little noise to draw our attention to necessary changes. And that’s just what a national child advocacy organization did recently when it issued a report critiquing all 50 states’ laws on the release of information about deaths and serious injuries from child abuse.

In a report titled “State Secrecy and Child Deaths in the United States,” First Star and the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law graded each state on two main issues. The first was whether the state allows public access to juvenile court abuse and neglect proceedings. The second was whether the state is in compliance with a federal law allowing public disclosure of information about cases of child abuse that have resulted in fatalities or “near fatalities.” Over half the states received no more than a “gentleman’s C.” Georgia, along with nine other states, received a failing grade.

As I sometimes have to remind my children, when you receive a poor grade is not the time to start making excuses. Rather, it’s the time to focus attention on building the skills at issue and figuring out how to improve. And that, I’m happy to report, is what Georgia will be doing over the next year.

Georgia already has good laws allowing public access to information about children who died from abuse or neglect. When a child dies from abuse or neglect in Georgia, the child abuse records that would otherwise be confidential under state and federal law are opened up and are accessible to the press and public. You’ve seen the results of that law in the heavy press coverage that follows the death of a child involved with our child protective services system. A federal law, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (usually called “CAPTA”), provides for our state to make those records public.

The idea behind public access is that if citizens and policymakers understand the situations causing these children to suffer so horribly, we will be in a better position to research and find ways to prevent these deaths. More information yields better policies and better laws. More public information also helps reassure Georgians that the child welfare system they pay for with their tax dollars is working. Those same purposes motivated our legislature in 1990 to create statewide child fatality review panels to study the causes of child deaths and work toward better child death and injury prevention programs. Much of our public focus on such issues as sudden infant death syndrome, the proper use of seat belts, and proper fencing for swimming pools has grown out of the child fatality review process.

A major reason Georgia fared poorly in the First Star study is that we have not updated our state laws to comply with another part of CAPTA. As part of the 1996 amendments to this law, Congress provided that states must also allow access to child abuse records when abuse results in a serious or critical injury. That makes sense, especially when you consider the fact that whether a child dies from abuse or lives through a serious injury may be a matter of fortune or divine mercy.

Now that First Star and the Children’s Advocacy Institute have pointed out this gap in our state law, we will begin working to fix the problem. In collaboration with Commissioner B.J. Walker and the Department of Human Resources, the Office of Child Advocate will advocate for the passage of legislation in the 2009 session to put us in compliance with this federal CAPTA provision. As we make plans for that legislation, we welcome suggestions on how best to balance the public’s right to this information against the child’s right to privacy.

Another issue the First Star report raises is whether abuse and neglect proceedings in juvenile court should be open to the public. For many years, the consensus was that these proceedings should be closed to protect the child. More recently, many juvenile courts across the country have been opening up these proceedings on the principle that the public should know more about how children suffer and how we work to protect them through our courts and our child welfare system. Judges, policymakers, and child advocates in Georgia remain conflicted on the issue, but the First Star report will help focus our attention on this needed debate.

I have a friend who, before his retirement, was the longest-serving superior court judge in Georgia. When parties to a domestic or divorce dispute would appear before him and start going back and forth about who had done what in the past, he would always stop them and say: “I’m not so much concerned about what happened as I am about what you’re going to do about it from now on.”

When it comes to making state child welfare policy, that advice is as sound as any.

Tom Rawlings, Georgia’s Child Advocate for the Protection of Children, was appointed by Gov. Sonny Perdue to assure quality and efficiency in Georgia’s child protective systems. The Office of Child Advocate is a resource for those interested in the welfare of our state’s neglected and abused children. Rawlings can be reached through the OCA Web site at