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Public reporting of abuse debated

Pa. is struggling to meet federal standards for disclosure of child-abuse deaths and injury.

Gov. Rendell and Pennsylvania lawmakers were moving yesterday toward legislation that would for the first time require the state to tell the public details about each child-abuse death - but only the bare minimum needed to comply with a federal law.

Lawmakers were in discussions last night about whether to go beyond those disclosure requirements. No agreement was reached, legislative aides said.

The bill must pass before the legislative session ends this year because Rendell has accepted $1 million in federal child-abuse grants and, in return, has promised the changes in state law.

The federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act requires states that accept grants to disclose "findings and information" about child-abuse deaths and near-deaths.

As currently written, the Pennsylvania measure would require once-a-year disclosures - without names - of unspecified information about children who were killed or severely injured as a result of abuse or neglect.

That policy would stand in stark contrast to the practices of other states, including California and New Jersey, which regularly release detailed information about deaths or near-deaths of children due to abuse or neglect.

In New Jersey, for example, child-welfare officials since 1997 have released the names of children killed by abuse, and have disclosed whether those children were previously known to the child-welfare agency.

In Pennsylvania, that information is secret.

The proposed law, as written, would not change that. Nor would it allow county child-welfare agencies, including Philadelphia's Department of Human Services, to answer questions about specific cases.

"Of course this legislation doesn't go far enough," said Richard Gelles, dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.

"The only appropriate way to go is the way California has gone and Rhode Island has gone and Connecticut has gone, and that is to create an ombudsman with subpoena power who can review deaths independently."

The Inquirer reported on Sunday that from 2003 through 2005, 20 children died of abuse or neglect after they or their families had had contact with DHS. There were 10 such deaths last year alone. The article spotlighted three cases in which signs of danger appeared to have been missed or discounted.

Confidentiality rules make it nearly impossible for the public to learn how DHS is performing, the newspaper found. DHS officials said they support loosening state disclosure rules so they can say more.

In response to written questions from The Inquirer, Rendell administration officials promised they would go further than the proposed law would require. They said they would release information quarterly instead of annually. They did not say what kinds of information they would release.

When he agreed in April to bring Pennsylvania into compliance with federal requirements, the governor announced his support for a pair of bills to change several provisions of Pennsylvania law.

In addition to more disclosure, other significant items are citizen review panels to examine child deaths, and a mandate that hospitals report to child-welfare officials every baby born with illegal drugs in its system.

"You're supposed to release enough information that a reasonable person can determine if the case was handled appropriately," said Wade F. Horn, an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Did they do due-diligence, follow their own procedures and apply reasonable judgement? Enough has to be released to answer those questions," he said.

He said the law does not prohibit states from releasing identifying information, even complete case files.

But under the Rendell-backed disclosure provision, the state would release only certain unspecified details about child deaths and near-deaths once per year, in its annual child-abuse statistical report.

Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf (R., Montgomery) on Tuesday offered an amendment to the bill that would require quarterly reporting.

"When we are dealing with fatalities and near-fatalities, we should not have to wait for an annual report," Greenleaf said. "The public should know about them."

Another proposal, by Rep. Katie True (R., Lancaster), would go further. It would overhaul the way counties conduct "death reviews" of child-abuse fatalities. It would bring outsiders into these reviews, and would make the reports public, with the names of the children blacked out.

In addition to child-welfare officials, private social workers, educators, police officers, child advocates, mental-health providers, and a local resident would serve on the review committee.

Child advocates say releasing death reviews would be a major step toward accountability for Pennsylvania's child-welfare system.

"There's no downside to a redacted disclosure of the findings of fatality review," said Frank Cervone, who runs a child-advocacy center in Philadelphia. "You can't control human behavior, but you can control things that are in your grasp. That's why they need to open up, and being a closed system is unhealthy."