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The term of the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities expired on March 18, 2016.

Confidentiality and Transparency: A Delicate Balance

Filed in Commissioner’s Blog By on August 7, 2014

By David Sanders, Chairman

August 7, 2014

Dr. SandersOn July 10, my fellow Commissioners and I gathered in Tampa, Florida for our second public state meeting to examine national policy, research, and state approaches to identifying, preventing, and eliminating child abuse and neglect fatalities. We were joined by more than 200 experts and stakeholders, in person and via teleconference, and had the opportunity to hear presentations from leading national authorities as well as state and local leaders from Florida. As during our first public meeting in Texas, we examined several specific programs and practices to explore what is working and what is not.

In Florida, we began taking a close look at how current laws relating to confidentiality, transparency, and accountability impact the ability of jurisdictions to report on and prevent child abuse deaths. We heard presentations from many diverse perspectives, including a national legal expert, state lawmaker, local judge, public agency official, and journalists. We are grateful to each of these distinguished speakers who shared their insights and first-hand experiences. There is no question that this is a complex issue, with great tension at times between the competing demands for privacy and public disclosure of information relating to child abuse and neglect fatalities.

Our panelists’ presentations underscored the familiar dilemma that often arises following a child’s death, as a grieving community seeks information about what has occurred and wonders: “How could this have happened?”, “Who is to blame?”, and “How can we prevent this from happening again?” Local leaders have told us that, at times like these, they grapple with how to satisfy the public’s legitimate desire for answers without compromising a child or family’s right to privacy or jeopardizing any law enforcement investigation that is under way.

Some of the key questions emerging from the day’s testimony include the following:

CECANF, Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities

Commissioners Marilyn Bruguier Zimmerman and Michael R. Petit listen to testimony during the public meeting in Tampa.

  • Whose needs and interests are being served in the name of confidentiality?
  • Do current laws and agency practices protect the privacy of family members as intended?
  • Are there gaps or unintended consequences in our current policies?
  • What changes, if any, are needed to achieve an appropriate balance between maintaining confidentiality and allowing for timely public disclosure of information?
  • What might the Commission recommend to help ensure that public officials have the guidance and tools needed to make sound judgments when these tragedies occur?
  • What policies would help the public hold government agencies accountable for appropriate action?

The challenges inherent in managing information after a child’s death or near death are substantial. However, there is another side to the issue that also merits the Commission’s close attention: How might we encourage and promote appropriate information-sharing among child-serving agencies in ways that enhance child protection and facilitate effective prevention efforts before these tragedies occur? How might greater access to data such as birth certificates, parents’ criminal records, substance abuse and mental health treatment records, and other information help child welfare agencies in their efforts to identify and better protect those children at greatest risk?

According to Howard Davidson, J.D., director of the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law, provisions of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA, the primary federal law governing confidentiality and information-sharing in child abuse and neglect cases) have evolved during the past 40 years. An early emphasis on keeping records private, with limited exceptions, has shifted to include explicit permission for states to make public certain information about a death or near death due to child abuse or neglect. However, Davidson also highlighted a lack of clarity and specificity in the federal guidance to states regarding what is permissible to disclose, and under what circumstances.

Like so many of the issues we are exploring as a Commission, the question of confidentiality is far more complex than it might at first appear. As we study the issue and hold public meetings in different states, we are beginning to understand how different localities have shaped their policies and practices around privacy, data sharing, and public disclosure in cases involving child abuse and neglect fatalities. We understand the delicate balancing act that is required in each child’s case, and we will continue to seek input from national, state, and local stakeholders to build toward solutions.

To reach the best possible answers to these and other challenging questions, we need to hear from as many stakeholders as possible. We hope you will consider attending one of our upcoming meetings and sharing your expertise via our website. We look forward to your input.

 

Rep. Gayle Harrell (r) addresses Commissioners on the topic of Confidentiality, Transparency, Accountability, and the Media while other panel members look on (from left to right: Curtis Krueger, Tampa Bay Times; Carol Marbin Miller, Miami Herald; John Jackson, Florida Department of Children and Families; and Judge Katherine Essrig, Florida’s Thirteenth Judicial Circuit).

Rep. Gayle Harrell (r) addresses Commissioners on the topic of Confidentiality, Transparency, Accountability, and the Media while other panel members look on (from left to right: Curtis Krueger, Tampa Bay Times; Carol Marbin Miller, Miami Herald; John Jackson, Florida Department of Children and Families; and Judge Katherine Essrig, Florida’s Thirteenth Judicial Circuit).

 

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