In 2012, 77 arsons plagued a small, rural community on Virginia's Eastern Shore. Over the span of five months, Accomack County residents and firefighters could not pin down the culprit, who was widely suspected to be a member of their community.
Last week, a toddler in Prince George’s County was murdered by her 12-year-old foster brother. Maryland’s Department of Human Resources pledges a thorough investigation, but many advocates say the case highlights the lack of transparency and public accountability within some of our region’s child welfare systems. We explore the tricky balance between privacy concerns and the public’s right to know.
- Matthew Fraidin Associate Professor of Law, David A. Clarke School of Law, University of the District of Columbia (UDC)
- Melissa Rock Child Welfare Director, Advocates for Children and Youth
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, go-go music and D.C.'s evolving identity, but, first, balancing privacy and transparency in the child welfare system. Last week, a 2-year-old child in Prince George's County foster care system was killed. Her 12-year-old foster brother charged with second-degree murder. Some details surrounding the death of Aniya Batchelor have come into focus, and the State Department of Human Resources has pledged a full investigation.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut some child welfare advocates say the case highlights a deeper problem in Prince George's County and around our region, a system that shields -- some would say hides -- data about child welfare away from the prying eyes of journalists and activists. So how should local governments balance concerns of privacy with the public's right to know? Joining us in studio is Melissa Rock, child welfare director with Advocates for Children and Youth. Melissa, thank you for joining us.
MS. MELISSA ROCKThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Matthew Fraidin. He's a professor of law at the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia. Matt Fraidin, thank you for joining us.
PROF. MATTHEW FRAIDINThanks for having me.
NNAMDIThe details surrounding the death of Aniya Batchelor are incomplete, but what we do know is pretty shocking. She had been placed with a foster family in Fort Washington under supervision of social services. And last week, a 12-year-old boy, the biological son of her foster parents, was charged with her murder. The actual crime itself generated headlines around the country, but details about the investigation and details about the family and the social workers involved have been scarce.
NNAMDIMatt, you are not directly involved with this case, but can you give us a sense right now of what would typically follow what is happening right now?
FRAIDINWell, what follows is an investigation by the department that's responsible. There's also a federally mandated fatality review commission that will convene to examine the events leading up to the death. But the concern that many of us have with that is that it means that the details of the situation will remain very much internal, that only the people who are involved in the system will learn the information.
FRAIDINAnd so the issues and the problems and the concerns that led to this tragedy really can't be the source of lessons for the greater public and inform the actions of the department in the future.
NNAMDISupreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once famously observed that sunlight is the best disinfectant in government, that transparency, openness are the best ways to ensure that institutions are functioning properly. But when we talk about child welfare, there's a strong presumption towards privacy in terms of data, in terms of court proceedings, in terms of identifying clients but also in terms of identifying subcontractors and identifying social workers. Is that a problem?
FRAIDINWell, the scales have tilted far too much toward confidentiality and secrecy. What is true in a number of states now, and a growing number of states, is that there is now a presumption that family courts will be open to the press and public, but judges retain the ability to close proceedings when it's in the best interest of the child to do so. So that's a way of maintaining the balance between privacy and transparency. The benefits of transparency, we think, are that it can improve decision-making ahead of time, so that mistakes can be avoided.
FRAIDINSo, for example, if a lawyer or a social worker or a judge knows that there's a possibility that a reporter or a citizens' watchdog group is going to be in the courtroom next week, they're going to say to themselves I need to make sure this kid gets to the doctor before the hearing next week, or I need to make sure that this child gets to visit with his siblings before the hearing next week because I don't want to be embarrassed when I come to that hearing and somebody hears me say, gee, I haven't talked to my client in the last month.
FRAIDINI don't know what's going on in his life. The other thing -- and this is really what you were referring to before. The other way that transparency can help is that it would allow us to learn lessons after the fact, after incidents happen. So the hope and the expectation is that it will protect individual kids and individual cases by making sure that all of us professional actors in the system do our jobs better. And then when things do fall apart and there are problems, we can learn why that happened.
NNAMDIMelissa, obviously, we understand the concerns about privacy, and that is these are children after all. On the other hand, the concerns about transparency have to do with whether or not we, the members of the public, have the right to know that the system is working properly. Is it possible that we have tilted too far in the direction of privacy?
ROCKIt is possible. I think that one of the protections that we have and what, we think, the focus should be on is more system-wide transparency. Maryland has a system called State Stat, and it's a website that can be accessed by everyone. That includes monthly reports by the Department of Human Resources and the Department of Juvenile Services. And this reports on the number of youth in care and their placements, and it also gets into some of the process issues that are important to how well the youth in care are doing.
ROCKFor instance, one of the issues that is involved in this case is what was happening in the foster home. So one of the protections for that is that caseworkers make monthly visits to the foster children to see what's happening in the home and states that has recently added monthly visits and the percentage of caseworkers that are doing their monthly visits. That way, we still have protection of the confidentiality of the family, but we can see what's happening in the counties and what's happening across the state with these important aspects of cases.
ROCKI do think that, in an ideal world, we would have open courts, but, right now, there is such a stigma around families receiving services, such as therapy, whether it's family therapy or individual therapy and assistance with parenting, having a parent aide in the home, and a stigma to the youth to being in foster care or in a group home.
ROCKAnd it's already so difficult for these families to be involved with the system and to need the assistance, I would hate for us to make it more difficult to them by having an open courtroom and having the embarrassment of the public knowing what's happening with their family and, you know, for the young person, having their friends in school know the issues in their family.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Melissa Rock. She's the child welfare director with Advocates for Children and Youth. Joining us in studio with Matthew Fraidin. He's a professor of law at the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia. We're discussing transparency in the child welfare system and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and ask a question or make a comment there.
NNAMDIHow should governments balance privacy and the public's right to know in child welfare cases? 800-433-8850. Melissa, what kind of institutions exist to police or to quality control these agencies? In newspapers and radio, we often have an ombudsman. In some government agencies, we have inspector generals. What sort of institutional checks are there in Maryland and around our region for child welfare agencies?
ROCKThere is an ombudsman with the Department of Human Resources as well, and there also are internal quality assurance processes. There's an entire unit at the Department of Human Resources focused on this that looks at the Maryland's data system, which is called CHESSIE and making sure that the data is being inputted into CHESSIE and that, again, as I mentioned before, that visits are occurring and that cases are being handled well.
ROCKAnd it also looks at the outcome for children and families, the length of time that they're involved in the foster care system, what their permanency plan is, whether they're going home to their parents or being adopted. And there are also federal audits that are done of state child welfare systems.
ROCKSo there's the child and family services review where the federal agency comes into the state and audits how Maryland is doing on different outcomes, such as length of time in care that the children have, and well-being outcomes, such as while the child is in care, how many placements they have and those sorts of data points.
NNAMDIMatt Fraidin, what kind of data, what kind of statistics tend to be most relevant in determining the quality of services delivered by these agencies?
FRAIDINWell, it's an interesting question. One of the things that we found here in D.C. was that a number that had never been counted before was the number of children who were being removed from their families unnecessarily. See, one of the -- and the Citizens Review Panel, which is another federally mandated group, issued a report last October in which they found less than 25 percent of the children who they studied were taken from their families with legal justification.
FRAIDINSo that's really quite a tremendous number that, in other words, it's saying most of the kids in our foster care system shouldn't be there. That's actually consistent with the results that we found with our clinic students at the University of the District of Columbia. Our students represented parents whose kids have been taken away by the Child and Family Services Agency, and 60 percent of the children were returned home and their cases closed within three months after being taken away.
FRAIDINThey were never found even to be abused or neglected. Now, the standard for being taken from your family, which is obviously an enormous moment in a child's life...
NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up because we in the public only really hear about the child welfare system when something goes spectacularly wrong and when we have these cases of extreme violence. But you say that the vast majority of cases in this area revolve around poverty issues, not violence.
FRAIDINThat's right and...
NNAMDICan you explain?
FRAIDINAnd what -- well, what's actually very interesting is that it's an issue that you've brought up today about confidentiality. The only stories that legally can be told in District of Columbia and in Maryland are stories in which criminal acts have occurred because the criminal system isn't closed. The criminal system isn't secret. So here, this tragedy obviously involves an alleged crime.
FRAIDINAnd so it is now screaming from the headlines. But the vast majority of kids who are in the foster care system are not there as a result of violence or abuse at the hands of their families, but, in fact, because of poverty-related issues, like lack of food, lack of clothing, lack of shelter, lack of childcare, so that they've been left home alone. And so the picture we get as a result of the secrecy laws is a very distorted one about the whole foster care system.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Don your headphones, please. We're about to hear from -- first, Liz is in Maryland. Liz, you are now on the air. Go ahead, please.
LIZOK. Kojo, I served on the Citizens Review Board for Children in my community.
LIZThat's a local organization which is responsible for reviewing and trying to assure that, in fact, the things that are supposed to happen happen.
LIZSo what we had, first of all, no enforcement. It took me a while to figure out that the only way that we could actually make anything move, we did quarterly reviews of the children. And when things were not happening to get them back home or in some cases, adopted timely, the only thing that I finally came up with that actually works was to say to the -- our administrator, let's bring this person back next week -- next month for consideration.
LIZAnd so when it got obvious that they were going to have to do report after report, those reports are -- take time. It was easier to do what needed to be done than it was -- but that was more built into the system, and nobody told anyone about this.
NNAMDIMelissa Rock, care to comment on that? Is that a fairly common experience?
ROCKI don't know whether that's a fairly common experience or not, but that is a tool that is often used by advocates in individual cases. If things aren't progressing the way that they want it to progress, they ask for another court hearing to help put pressure on either -- on the social worker to try and get the services put in place or try and make sure that things are moving forward.
NNAMDIAnd, Liz, so that's how you finally got some action?
LIZThat's one way of getting action. The other thing that concerned me a great deal was that a lot of the information that we received came from these people who were supposed to be doing the work. And we were somehow supposed to verify this sitting in a room somewhere. And if, you know, you say it and then I say it, then it's true. Well, I never was sure.
FRAIDINWell, the Citizens...
LIZBy and large, our local system seemed to work pretty well.
NNAMDIHere's Matt Fraidin.
FRAIDINWell, the Citizens Review Panels have been more and less effective in different jurisdictions around the country. The report that the District of Columbia Citizens Review Panel issued last October was a very effective, very clear analysis of data provided by the Child and Family Services Agency. But it made a very clear statement that the fundamental problem with our foster care system, just like foster care systems around the country, is that the wrong kids are being brought into care. There are too many kinds in the foster care system.
FRAIDINAnd so, on the one hand, kids who need to be in foster care might get missed because the social workers are too busy dealing with the kids who don't need to be there. And then once they're in foster care, there's too many to really support them and help them the way they need it. And these are the stories that can't be told, that are suppressed by the law.
NNAMDIHere is -- and, Liz, thank you for your call. Here is Ellen in Elkridge, Md. Ellen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELLENYes. I wanted to comment upon a bill that was passed in Maryland in 2010, HB 1141, which was in response to a national report by First Star, which is located in the District, giving Maryland an F on transparency with regard to disclosure of information about fatalities and near fatalities. As a result of that F, the Coalition to Protect Maryland's Children -- and this is before Melissa became a member of the coalition -- got introduced a law that would require more transparency.
NNAMDIAnd you're saying that that law has not been implemented? Melissa, what do you know about that?
ROCKI don't have knowledge specifically about that. I do know that part of the state stat report is child fatalities, and they do report every month on whether there are child fatalities. And I know that the DHR secretary issued a letter saying that they are going to give as much information as they can about the investigation into the situation in Prince George's County.
FRAIDINThere's certainly no debate that more data and more transparency on a statewide level is a good thing, and it's really great to hear that Maryland is opening up in that way. The concern, though, is that, unless you really drill down into the particular facts of particular situations and particular circumstances, you can't really learn about the choices that were made, the decisions that were made, the information that those decisions were based on. And so you can't really learn the lessons after the facts from data.
NNAMDIIn this particular case of the death of Aniyah Batchelor, there may be some confusion over whose responsibility is what between the county -- Prince George's County and the state of Maryland. Can you clarify a little bit of that for us, Melissa?
ROCKI don't think that there would be confusion about that. Prince George's...
NNAMDIWell, you don't know me. That's the problem.
ROCKPrince George's County Department of Social Services has a case worker who was assigned to the case and the -- each county's Department of Social Services is overseen by Maryland State Department of Human Resources. There isn't an issue of the statewide agency being responsible for certain things that the local agency isn't. It's all state administered and overseen by the state, and then the case workers are in the individual counties' jurisdictions.
NNAMDIAt some point along the way in this investigation, will we become aware -- we, the public, those people who are concerned -- of exactly what happened here, both in terms of the placement of the child and in terms of the apparent crime that was committed?
ROCKI don't know how much information we will end up getting about the specific facts around the case because, you know, the information about why she was in foster care and what was happening within that foster home are confidential, so I don't know how much information will be made public.
FRAIDINInterestingly, a couple of years ago when the Renee Bowman tragedy happened...
NNAMDIWe remember Renee Bowman, Banita Jacks, yes.
FRAIDINRight. Renee Bowman was the woman who adopted children from the D.C. foster care system while living in Maryland -- so, actually, both D.C. and Maryland had really given her the green light -- and ended up killing the children.
NNAMDIChildren and putting -- placing them in a freezer.
FRAIDINRight. Interestingly, at that time, there was some pressure on then Atty. Gen. Peter Nickels, in just the same way that we're talking today, to figure out what happened, what went wrong. And he opened the court file, as I recall, to The Washington Post. I think it was Keith Alexander who wrote a piece on it. There wasn't much follow-up, and it was, as I recall, only available to Mr. Alexander. But it was an interesting acknowledgement or tacit acknowledgement by the attorney general about the value and the power of the information.
NNAMDIAfraid that's all the time we have in this segment. Matthew Fraidin is a professor of law at the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia. Matt Fraidin, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIMelissa Rock is child welfare director at Advocates for Children and Youth. Melissa, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, go-go music and D.C.'s evolving identity. We'll talk with author Natalie Hopkinson. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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