Friday, April 27, 2007

No accountability or records regarding kids who die in foster care

Editorial: Every child's life counts
San Francisco Chronicle, April 24, 2007, pg. B6.

SENATE BILL 39, by state Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, would bring much-needed transparency into California's opaque procedures for disclosing information about the deaths of foster children. As things stand right now, determining when, how and why a foster child died is maddeningly difficult.

Though state law requires all counties to release the names and ages of dead foster children, finding out any more information usually means a trip to court -- where counties can challenge the release of court files over and over again, until the requestor runs out of money and gives up. Making matters worse is a lack of accountability in the system -- no one agency is responsible for gathering all of the information about a foster child's death. The state doesn't even know how many of them die each year.

This is no way to treat our most vulnerable children.

SB39, which undergoes its first hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, would correct the worst aspects of this process. Very basic information about these children would be available within five days of their deaths; more (such as emergency response referrals, health records relating to the death, police files and the foster parents' licensing information) would be provided, if a police investigation turned up evidence of abuse or neglect. Petitioners would still have to go to court for the full files -- but judges would have to make decisions on whether or not to grant them within 30 days (it can take years at present), and counties are only allowed to challenge release rulings once.

"You've got to be able to look into cases when children die," Migden said. "We think this ought to be part of a national thrust toward providing transparency into these systems, so that they can be scrutinized and improved."

So do we. SB39 needs to be signed into law.