Child near-fatalities: Bill requires state to review them and release info -- with exceptions

Lawmakers have passed a bill that would require the state to review cases of abuse that result in the near-fatality of a child. The bill also requires review of "incidents of egregious abuse or neglect," a more amorphous category that the state Department of Human Services, which backed the bill, say could include torture or rape of a young child. The bill calls for transparency, but advocates worry it also provides an easy out.

The disagreement poses important questions: Should the stories of horrific child abuse, which advocates and the state agree can teach valuable lessons about how to prevent the next tragedy, ever be kept secret? And if so, when?

At a press conference last month, Governor John Hickenlooper and Colorado Department of Human Services head Reggie Bicha unveiled a new plan for improving the state's child welfare system. Included: "Draft legislation that would allow CDHS to publicly share information -- good and bad -- regarding child welfare investigations."

State law already requires that CDHS review child fatalities. A bill passed last year established a child fatality review team to investigate child abuse deaths in cases where the family was involved with a county child welfare system. (In Colorado, child welfare services are delivered by the counties and overseen by the state, a structure that a state committee unsuccessfully tried to change a few years ago in the wake of outcry over child deaths.) The resulting report is then made public, minus any confidential information.

This year's bill would add near-fatalities and egregious incidents to that process. Colorado is one of only two states currently out of compliance with federal child abuse prevention law requiring the review of near-fatalities, an oversight that could cost the state up to $500,000 in federal funds. However, an amendment approved in the House says that the state can withhold information about a case of serious abuse if it would jeopardize a criminal investigation or a "civil investigation or proceeding."

It's that last part that worries Stephanie Villafuerte, the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center. She says the disclosure exception is "well-intended but poorly designed." At a hearing before the House Health and Environment Committee earlier this month, she said the exception "really could stymie the very nature of what we're calling transparency here, and it might prevent us from getting any information."

"I think this could be sort of really gutting the statute," she said.

"Civil investigation or proceeding" is not defined in the bill. Civil lawsuits sometimes arise when a child has died, as is the case with Chandler Grafner, a seven-year-old boy who was starved to death by his foster parents in 2007. As reported by the Denver Post, Grafner's biological parents recently won a battle for the right to sue two county social workers who they claim failed to properly respond to reports that the boy was being abused.

At the House committee hearing, bill sponsor Representative Tom Massey welcomed the criticism. "In my conversations with the department and counties, this was more or less an agreed-to amendment from the department," he said.

However, Massey called Villafuerte's concerns "viable" and invited her to help craft another amendment that would address her worries about the civil proceedings exception. Pat Ratliff, a lobbyist for Colorado Counties Inc., an association representing county commissioners, also pledged to help craft a compromise.

But it seems that compromise never materialized. Last week, the full House passed the bill with the "civil investigation or proceeding" clause intact. The Senate had previously passed the bill. It now heads to the governor's desk.

Westword has contacted Massey about why the bill went forward without a compromise and will update this post when we hear back. Meanwhile, Villafuerte, who is pleased that the state will now review near-fatalities and egregious incidents, continues to be concerned about whether that information will be released. "Most importantly, these exceptions could serve to keep important information about why a child was nearly killed or egregiously injured from the public's review," she writes in an e-mail.

And that, in its own way, could be tragic.

More from our News archive: "Denver one of fifteen 'at-risk' counties for young children, report says."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar

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