Sunday, January 20, 2008

Lawmakers want public access to files from killed, injured children

Lawmakers want public access to files from killed, injured children
By Howard FischerCapitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- State lawmakers took the first steps Tuesday to virtually guarantee public access to files when children are killed or very seriously injured.Legislation being crafted by members of the House Committee on Government would spell out that Child Protective Services must release its records on request by any person in the case of a fatality or near fatality. Files could be kept confidential only if CPS or prosecutors could show that disclosure would cause specific material harm to an ongoing investigation.The measure also would allow anyone who has been denied access to ask a judge to intercede.Other legislation being drafted by the panel includes:- requiring that all court proceedings involving termination of parental rights and making children dependents of the state are presumed to be open;- expanding the files that are available to inspection by police and prosecutors who get a court order;
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- setting up new procedures to ensure that CPS workers inform police when a child who is the subject of one of their investigations turns up missing;- providing more public access to the personnel records of not just CPS workers but all state employees.Rep. Jonathan Paton, R-Tucson, said the changes are designed to allow for more scrutiny of the operation of the agency by not just the public but also the Legislature.Paton said it took a lawsuit by the Arizona Daily Star to force CPS to cough up the records of two Tucson cases involving the deaths of three children. And he said it was only because those records are now public that lawmakers have the chance to examine how CPS functions and recommend changes. "The bills we are discussing are opening up the process ... so we can have a real debate,'' Paton said. Rep. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, cautioned his colleagues against overreacting to some high profile events and putting too much information in the public sphere"I think sunshine is important to be able to try to improve the process,'' he said. "But in the process of opening up to sunshine, we don't want to open up the kids to sunburn,'' Farley continued. He said children who are the subject of some of these inquiries are innocent of any wrongdoing and vulnerable. "Any information that comes out in the public, particularly in high-profile cases, is something that's going to mark those kids for life and it's not their fault,'' he said. "So I think we have to be careful of how those kids are revealed and what's revealed.''Farley said that's true even in cases where a child has died, as there may be a sibling still at home.Paton said the measures are not designed to punish CPS even though the agency has been under intense scrutiny by legislators.That predates the deaths last year of Brandon Williams and Ariana and Tyler Payne.In fact, he said, opening up the process to more scrutiny actually could help CPS avoid suggestions that it is hiding something.But there would be some limits.For example, the proposal to require court hearings be open is not absolute. A judge could shut out the public after considering factors including the "best interest'' of the child, how an open hearing would endanger the child's physical or emotional condition and whether an open hearing would endanger the safety of any person.And even if a hearing is open, anyone in attendance is prohibited from disclosing any personal identifying information about any of the parties outside the courtroom.But there would be no such restrictions on information that would be publicly available on state employees.Under current interpretations of the law, the state provides basic information on state workers, including their names, salaries and positions. What's not disclosed now, he said, are disciplinary actions.Paton said that is crucial in finding out whether a CPS worker who followed improper procedures in handling a case has a history of similar problems.Lawmakers have been able to get that information -- but only after issuing a subpoena, and only after agreeing to discuss the information behind closed doors