Department of Human Services End secrecy and protect the children

Posted: November 28, 2006

Trust us.

That's essentially the response of Philadelphia officials more than a month after The Inquirer reported on the deaths of children whose families at one time had cases with the city's Department of Human Services.

Trust us, they say as they work within a fortress of secrecy, to fix what went so fatally wrong in DHS.

The reality is this: Government agencies love secrecy because it can help them hide their mistakes. But the consequences of DHS's mistakes make it essential for City Hall to release records dealing with child-abuse and -neglect fatalities.

DHS investigative and administrative problems thrived in secrecy as at least 25 children whose families were involved with the department died of abuse and neglect between 2003 and 2005. Some deaths were of infants and toddlers who needed an adult to protect them.

Mayor Street and state officials professed outrage over the deaths. Street said the bad old ways would end in a new era of accountability.

"It is imperative that the child-welfare system go above and beyond the normal call of duty," the mayor said earlier this month.

That new era sure didn't last long.

City Solicitor Romulo L. Diaz Jr. has refused to release DHS reviews of the deaths of children who came to the department's attention. Diaz also will not reveal the names of five taxpayer-paid DHS contractors on whose watch children died.

His legal conclusion is that state law and regulations require child-abuse cases to be kept confidential. He also said the city cannot release information that could hurt contractors' reputations.

The Street administration should be concerned about protecting children, not contractors. Are officials even looking for ways to both release death reviews and preserve confidentiality by providing summaries to the public or removing identifying information from reports?

It's too late to protect children killed by abuse or neglect, but continued secrecy could jeopardize the safety of siblings. Keeping information private shouldn't be a tool for government to protect itself.

Diaz also contends that making these records public would impede other investigations into the deaths that The Inquirer has detailed. But that doesn't have to happen.

Legislators should look at how other states release child death reviews amid other inquiries, and change Pennsylvania law accordingly to allow more transparency. State Welfare Secretary Estelle Richman should revise regulations covering DHS, so death reviews can be made public with certain restrictions.

DHS can best protect children by identifying failures and making corrections in full public view. Public pressure may be the force needed to ensure that city officials follow though.

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