Wednesday, December 20, 2006

South Carolina discloses information; California doesn't

Editorial: Foster Care Reform
It works in South Carolina
Millner, Caille. San Francisco Chronicle, Dec 3, 2006. p. E5
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FOR MORE than 10 years, South Carolina has had one of the nation's strongest policies about public disclosure for the deaths of foster children. South Carolina's clear and succinct policies stand in stark contrast to California's confusing and disjointed disclosure system.

"We review all the records and talk about what the agency did or didn't do in a specific case -- was there a failure to make a home visit? Did someone not follow a policy concerning documentation?" said Virginia Williamson, general counsel for South Carolina's Department of Social Services. "The reports talk about agency activities instead of laying out the family's dynamics or revealing information about siblings or other relatives."

A public request yields plenty of information. They sent us a document containing summary information about the circumstances of death for children who died in 2004. The document included not just children who had died of suspected abuse or neglect while in active protection, but also children whose deaths were the result of accidents or natural causes and received no public attention. By listing this last group without names, their privacy is protected - - but the public can still do comparisons.

Composed in a simple, clear format, each entry is easy to read and analyze. For example, we learned that in 2004, there were nine child deaths due to abuse and neglect while in active protection, one well-publicized child death due to homicide, and 28 accident- and natural cause-deaths. Of the nine abuse and neglect deaths, one was a foster child -- Lakeysha Tharp, a 10-year-old in Richland County, of probable asphyxiation. We learn that the foster mother has been charged with homicide by child abuse, and that the foster mother's son (unnamed, because he is a minor) has been charged with the murder as well.

It's all there: the case, the lost child, and what's being done to ensure that her death was not in vain. And the sky hasn't fallen in South Carolina as a result of such disclosure. If they're worried about "privacy," or "liability" or "politics," the excuses that certain authorities offer in California, it hasn't stopped law enforcement from serving or social services from protecting. Nor has it stopped the public from carrying on with their private lives. The only difference is that the public also has the knowledge to ask questions and push for improvement.

"It's always a delicate balance between being accountable to the public for how we do business, the privacy interests of families, and protecting the state from lawsuits," said Williamson. "But ultimately we feel that transparency and accountability are important."

So do we.

California legislators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made progress this year by approving a series of measures to upgrade the level of consistency and oversight in the state's troubled foster- care system -- but there is much work to be done.