Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration is missing an opportunity to provide the public with important information about the little-seen and the often tragic world of child welfare.
A proposal that became public last Friday would provide some access to previously sealed records regarding child abuse. But the restrictions Brown’s aides seek to impose would make the records of little use.
The conditions offered by the administration raise questions about whose interests are being protected. Certainly, the interests of the young victims of abuse don’t seem to be at the forefront of the administration’s thinking.
In 2007, the Legislature, spurred in part by stories in The Sacramento Bee and other publications about child abuse, approved Senate Bill 39, which provided access to some records of children who died.
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Separately, a federal law says states must disclose to the public instances of child abuse that result in near-fatal injuries. The feds have directed the California Department of Social Services to comply with the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act or risk losing $4.8 million in federal funds.
Not wanting to run afoul of the feds, the Brown administration made public language as part of the May budget revision intended to comply with the federal law. On its face, the effort to open more records is good. But the language contains several flaws.
Under the proposal, counties would be able to delay release of records for at least 30 days after the completion of an investigation, creating an exception to state law that requires government to respond to requests for information within 10 days. The wait could be far longer, further endangering children in similar situations.
Another troubling provision would allow officials to produce “descriptions” of critical documents rather than the actual documents. The documents in question can show systematic problems that have led to abuse. But the Brown proposal would empower unnamed officials to shield horrendous child abuse or government misfeasance behind anodyne descriptions.
No one expects names and addresses of child victims to be revealed, and officials are skilled at redacting information to which the public has no legitimate claim.
Under the administration’s proposal, the public could gain limited access to some information that currently is not subject to release. However, the administration seeks to muzzle the information it claims to be releasing.
The Senate and Assembly budget committees are considering the proposal, and it has support from the powerful Service Employees International Union, along with county welfare directors.
We join the California Newspaper Publishers Association, the National Center for Youth Law, and the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego in urging legislators to ensure public access to important information. By helping to shine light, legislators can combat child abuse and maybe save lives.