A closer look at child abuse cases

Bill would make some hearings public, show performance of workers

Posted: Sunday, March 05, 2000

Shining more light on the system that handles child abuse cases may improve it. That's the opinion of advocates for Senate Bill 224, a measure that would open some court proceedings and records involving reports of child abuse and neglect.

The bill, proposed by Gov. Tony Knowles, moved out of the Senate Health Education and Social Services Committee last week. A similar House bill has had one hearing in the House HESS Committee.

The measure is a product of a task force that began meeting in 1998 after a couple of high-profile child abuse cases in which the Division of Family and Youth Services' performance was called into question.

Sen. Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican on the Senate committee, praised the Department of Health and Social Services for backing the bill.

``This is a pretty bold step by the department and I appreciate it,'' he said. It may reveal workers' mistakes or it may show they're doing a good job. ``It's certainly going to hold them more accountable,'' he said.

If the bill passes, Alaska will become one of several states experimenting with making their child protection systems more open, said Jan Rutherdale, an assistant attorney general.

Proceedings have been closed, presumably to protect the injured child from embarrassment. But Rutherdale said child advocacy groups elsewhere in the country actually favor the change.

``They felt if you shed more light on the system . . . it eventually helps the child more.''

The proposed changes still attempt to prevent the child's identity from being disclosed. In court hearings, for instance, rather than referring to a child by name, attorneys would probably simply say ``the child.''

Court records on those cases would be available to the public, but the child would probably be identified only by initials. Other identifying information and other parts of the record would remain confidential. Most DFYS records that don't make it to court would still be closed.

The state Office of Public Advocacy, which includes guardians ad litem who are appointed to advocate for the child in such cases, endorses the bill.

After talking with other states that have moved toward more openness, Brant McGee, director of the office, said he was reassured that the media continued to protect the identity of children and families. He believes the system would benefit from more openness.

``Many would argue that it's the most critical element of public safety,'' he said. ``The public needs to know more about it. Frankly, they need to know whether or not we're doing a good job.''

There are potential problems with the bill, however. Federal law requires states to keep child abuse and neglect cases confidential in order to continue receiving federal funding.

Other states that have tried making the process more open, however, haven't had any repercussions, Rutherdale said. The federal government is drafting regulations to clarify the issue.

Another unknown is the measure's cost. Doug Wooliver, administrative attorney for the Alaska Court System, estimated it will cost at least $116,000 a year, partly because clerks will have to sort through case files and remove confidential information.

Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat, was among four Senate HESS Committee members recommending the bill move from committee.

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