DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL

Arapahoe County Human Services Director Brian Field says he's not familiar with the specific case Newton is talking about. But he says the county's policy is to tell foster parents everything about a child--with the exception, he says, "of things that only involve the parents themselves."

Karen Studen, manager of Colorado's Division of Child Welfare, says her department doesn't support withholding information from foster parents. Studen, whose agency regulates, oversees and audits county foster-care programs, adds that state rules require that caseworkers share "complete information" with the foster parent.

But foster-care parents aren't the only ones who have trouble getting information from child-welfare professionals. Gus Sandstrom says his committee was struck by the difference between the actual language of the state law governing the release of information and the overzealous way the statute is enforced by local agencies.

"The locals have an impression that the confidentiality statute goes much further than it does, a total misimpression," says Sandstrom. "When we came onto the task force, one of the first hearings we had concerned confidentiality. We had both a state education lawyer and a [state divison of child welfare] lawyer come in and explain to us what the rules are." According to Sandstrom, the panel was "shocked" at how much information was readily available to it under the law--but which had been withheld. "Stuff we used to be told we needed a court order for," he says, "we didn't."

Some Colorado counties take the gag rule further than others. During a recent interview, Roseanne Stiblo, public-affairs director for the Denver Department of Social Services, refused to let Denver Family Crisis Center director Anna Frederickson explain why one little boy had been floating around the system for a year and a half--even though Frederickson didn't intend to use his name.

"You can't talk about that," blurted Stiblo, interrupting Frederickson. "If you write that the boy burned his grandfather's house down eighteen months ago, it'll identify him. Then we'll all go to jail."

Using the same apparently self-imposed standard as her guide, Stiblo insists on monitoring all media discussions with Denver social workers, aides and assistants, often cutting off conversations in the name of confidentiality--and the fear that everyone involved will end up behind bars.

Jefferson County takes an even more extreme stand on the issue of confidentiality. "We just don't talk," says Susan Franklin, manager of the county's family-resources department. "We just don't." Not about the program itself, not about the system as a whole, not about kids, whether or not they're referred to by name.

The state's Studen defends the practice. "Each county has the ability to establish policy around their interaction with the media," she notes in a written statement.

But though Stiblo and others repeatedly refer to statutory limits on their ability to provide information, there is no actual statute that requires absolute silence on all child-welfare issues. Wade Livingston, a lawyer in the Colorado Attorney General's office who specializes in child-welfare law, observes that the law in Colorado "basically says you can't identify the kid. In some rural communities, where they have just a handful of kids in care, that may mean you can say very little. But in a place like Denver or a metropolitan area like that, you'd have to give the name, address and Social Security number to identify a kid."

Richard Gelles, director of the University of Rhode Island's Family Violence Research Program, says the cloak of confidentiality has become a convenient excuse for social-service agencies around the country. "They bury their mistakes behind confidentiality," he says. "They use it to keep you out of their hair, to keep me out of their hair, to keep from being held accountable."

And Newton and Greene say fear of retribution discourages foster parents from breaking the code of silence to talk about the problems they see on the front lines.

In her case, Newton says, that fear became reality when Arapahoe County removed two foster children she was weeks away from adopting, yanked her license and accused her of being abusive. She says the action followed a long line of threats from the county, including a vow to move one of her foster kids to another placement because she objected to his visiting his mother--who he said had held his head in a flushing toilet during his last visit home.

Newton and her attorney, Joe Pickard, have notified Arapahoe County that they intend to sue the county over the 1994 incident, which resulted in Newton losing her foster children. Newton charges that the county's allegations were false--and were payback for her outspoken criticism of the system as president of the Arapahoe County Foster Parent's Association.

County prosecutors never filed criminal charges against Newton. But they did place her name on the state's child-abuse registry. She's already managed to get her license reinstated (though she ripped it up after having it returned to her), and the state has taken her name off the registry.

Brian Field says the action taken against Newton "had nothing to do with [her] advocacy." He says Newton was only given her license back after she signed an agreement promising to relinquish it upon receipt--a claim Newton ardently disputes. Field declines to discuss why the county accused Newton of abuse.

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