Lawmakers aim to open CPS records - East Valley Tribune: News

Lawmakers aim to open CPS records

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Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2008 8:06 pm | Updated: 10:54 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

After C.J. Young was beaten to death in August 2003, state Child Protective Services acknowledged that the agency had been closely involved with the 2-year-old's family for more than a decade.

And though the law allowed CPS to release records in the case, it refused to do so, citing prosecutors' concerns that such disclosure could jeopardize the investigation into the Mesa boy's death.

It took more than a year before an arrest was made in the high-profile case, and another two-plus years before C.J.'s mother started a 17-year prison sentence for child abuse.

Whether C.J.'s death helped CPS to make any systemic changes is unknown, because neither the case file nor any review, if one was done, has been made public.

Now, legislative efforts to open CPS records when children die, or nearly die, are struggling to overcome the same concerns raised about C.J.'s case.

DEBATE OVER SECRECY

At issue is the long-held belief that the child welfare system and the people who work in it are entitled to more secrecy than the rest of state government.

"The law does protect children, and rightfully so. And this amendment to the law would protect them as well," said attorney David Bodney, who has been meeting with lawmakers on the bill.

"But the state shouldn't use children as an excuse for not sharing basic information with the public, especially when a child dies when he or she is in the care of the state."

Rep. Kirk Adams, R-Mesa, and Rep. Jonathan Paton, R-Tucson, have pushed a package of CPS bills through Adams' government committee, including one to require prompt release of records when a child dies from abuse or neglect. They expected to bring the bills to the House floor last week for a vote.

But a surprise amendment from Rep. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson, and concerns from Gov. Janet Napolitano have temporarily derailed the public records bill and the other measures.

Adams and Paton say that HB2454, which is on today's House debate calendar, is the cornerstone of their proposed reforms, which include measures to require cooperation between police and caseworkers, make child dependency hearings public, open disciplinary records of state employees, and enable missing persons reports to be filed on certain children.

The bills stem from the deaths of three Tucson children who were known to CPS and whose parents are accused of killing them. Tucson newspapers went to court to force release of CPS records in the cases of Brandon Williams and siblings Tyler and Ariana Payne.

The Lopez amendment would have tightened the law even further, requiring CPS to release only the name of the child and the person accused of abuse, and whether there had been previous reports involving that child and the accused.

"It doesn't just gut the bill, it guts the public records law," Paton said.

Lopez has said she's concerned about protecting the identities of siblings and other innocent family members, and doesn't want to run afoul of federal laws that require such protection.

Paton and Adams said they allayed her concerns in a meeting March 10. Lopez, a former foster parent, didn't return a call seeking comment.

Gilbert foster mother Julie Bank-Rollins said opening up CPS is a good idea, in part because it would help the public understand that the system is overwhelmed and underfunded. Her family has cared for 25 children over the past 10 years, including kids with developmental disabilities and behavioral problems.

"I think the agency should be accountable. ... But they don't have the resources," she said. "There's no way they can see all of these children once a month."

On Wednesday, the governor met with Paton and Adams, offering her own amendment to ensure that CPS reports aren't released before prosecutors can review them.

Paton said the governor's amendment won't work because it allows the agency to issue summaries, then give prosecutors carte blanche to withhold the rest. Summaries are routinely all that's currently released in child death cases.

"Summaries have proven to be meaningless at best and misleading at worst," Bodney said.

But Mike Haener, the governor's deputy chief of staff, said the current language would allow case files to be made public before attorneys can determine whether that could jeopardize a criminal case.

"It's a sequencing issue," Haener said. "All we're trying to do is say, let CPS release the information they can release" in a summary, while the county attorney determines how much of the case file should be open.

In any case, a judge would settle disputes between CPS and those seeking more information. But the Paton-Adams bill would require prosecutors to show how releasing the information would cause "a specific, material harm" to their investigation.

'A PAINFUL PROCESS'

Yet another amendment was being drafted over the weekend and all sides are hopeful that some kind of public records bill will emerge this session.

"I think there's a way to fix this," Paton said. "This is a painful process and it's going to take awhile to get it finished."

In 2006, the state's Child Fatality Review Team classified 60 deaths as maltreatment. Twenty-one of those children were in families that had prior CPS involvement. Among those, nine families had open CPS cases when the child died.

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