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State stops releasing records in child tragedies

KANSAS CITY (AP) — The Missouri Department of Social Services’ practice of releasing information after the deaths or near deaths of children has come to an abrupt, unexplained halt, a joint newspaper investigation shows.

After high-profile tragedies a decade ago, the state system charged with protecting children began releasing records previously closed to the public.

But the Springfield News-Leader and The Kansas City Star reported that the openness ended in June after a 10-year-old girl was freed from a Kansas City closet weighing 32 pounds.

Court records show the girl had been hospitalized as a 4-year-old because she already was underweight at 26 pounds. Afterward, the girl and a younger sibling were taken from their mother. Soon after the mother regained custody, the elder girl stopped attending school and dropped out of sight.

The newspaper analysis shows that since the end of June, the agency has declined to release information about six children who had a history with agency staff. DSS said in a statement that the organization upholds its “mission to protect children, and to transparency and openness” but didn’t directly respond to questions the two newspapers asked.

Family advocates, as well as former and current child welfare workers, fear releasing less information puts children at risk because it prevents an analysis of what went wrong.

“I’m not trying to take away anyone’s constitutional right of privacy,” said Rep. Bill Lant, a Republican from Joplin who co-chairs the new Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, which was created to bring improvements to the state child welfare system.

“But when something is so wrong (that) our babies are being abused and killed,” Lant said, “and we can’t do anything to stop it or thoroughly investigate it to make sure it doesn’t happen again, we have to do something to change our laws.”

The disclosure law on the books, passed in 2000 after the torture and starvation deaths of two Kansas City boys, allows DSS to release records following a child fatality or near fatality.

But that disclosure comes at the sole discretion of the agency’s director after reviewing whether the information could harm siblings.

The current director, Alan Freeman, has held the post since December, when Gov. Jay Nixon appointed him.

Before Freeman, DSS had an interim director for more than a year.

Now, however, the agency says it can’t release any information until the criminal prosecution is completed. And in two recent cases, DSS officials said they had consulted with prosecutors or police on whether to divulge records.

“It sounds like a shift in policy at the Jeff City level,” said Springfield attorney Bryan Wade, who successfully tested Missouri’s disclosure law after the 2002 death of Dominic James in foster care.

“I understand the need for privacy for the children and the families, but ultimately there has to be some form of transparency.”

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