"Each year, about 1,000 children die" in the state of Missouri, Sen. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, told members of the Senate's Seniors, Families and Children Committee on Wednesday afternoon.
And state law requires every county in the state, as well as the City of St. Louis, to have a "child fatality review panel" to investigate the deaths of all children younger than 18.
However, under current law, all the reports and records associated with those investigations "shall not be open to the general public except for the annual report."
And that restriction, Riddle said, makes it hard for the state to do one of the jobs it's supposed to do under the child fatality review process — "preventing future child fatalities."
So Riddle's bill would "update the confidentiality requirements of the local and the state panels, so that information from the panels can be used to inform and prevent future fatalities," she said. "Currently, the confidentiality threshold is so high that the department cannot even release any non-identifiable aggregate data."
Emily van Schenkhof heads Missouri's Children's Trust Fund.
"We are a Child Abuse Prevention Foundation, with the sole mission of creating the safest state in the nation for our children," she reminded the committee's members. "This bill is, to some degree, a reflection of my sense of urgency that we do more as a state to prevent these fatalities."
Van Schenkhof said she wanted to see if there are any patterns to child deaths in the state.
"I requested data from the (Social Services) department to look at and map these fatalities to see if there are pockets in the state where we have higher rates of fatalities," she said. "And, it took maybe three months for me to get this data — dozens of hours of my time and dozens of hours of time for the legal team at the Department of Social Services.
"I ended up getting the data, but I have an affidavit basically saying that I can't share any of that data. So, I can't show you what I've learned about places that have higher rates."
Even though the information she wanted was general, and didn't include the details of specific cases that had been investigated, she told the committee that current state law says, "We would face a criminal penalty if we released that information."
Changing the law as proposed in Riddle's bill "would allow our child fatality review panel (and) allow organizations like the Children's Trust Fund to better understand child fatalities," van Schenkhof testified, "so we can craft strategies to prevent them from occurring, in a better, more thoughtful way."
Kelly Schultz, director of the state's Office of Child Advocate and member of the Child Abuse and Neglect Fatality Subcommittee, told the senators the subcommittee is reviewing about 60 cases a year where "the local panels have indicated the death was related to abuse and neglect. We can learn a lot through subcommittee's work.
"We would very much like to share with you what we have learned."
However, unless the law is changed, they can't.
Van Schenkhof said most of the child deaths in the state involve "very, very young children. They tend to be infants and toddlers — some of whom have lived (and) suffered immeasurably, before their deaths.
"These little people deserved a lot better than what came to them."
Riddle, R-Mokane, said: "We owe it to our children to do everything we can to learn from and prevent these tragedies from occurring in the future. This bill would allow the department to make non-identifiable aggregate data publicly available — and would make identifiable data available at the discretion of the director of Social Services.
"This is exactly the same confidentiality standard that we currently use for child fatality data in our Missouri Children's Division — so, this just mirrors what the Children's Division has already been doing."
No one testified against the bill.
Chairman David Sater, R-Cassville, said he hoped the committee could vote next week on recommending the measure be passed by the full Senate.