CARSON CITY -- A bill that would require child welfare agencies to release much more information about children in their care who die or are critically injured appears to be well on its way to becoming law.
The Senate Human Resources Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved Assembly Bill 261. The bill was introduced by Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, in response to a study that found 11 children died of abuse while in the protective custody of the Clark County Department of Child and Family Services between 2001 and 2004.
A state Department of Health and Human Services analysis found another 79 deaths of children during the 2001-04 period should have been investigated by Clark County Family Services, but were not.
Officials at local child protective agencies, based on advice of their attorneys, refused to release much information about the children and exactly how their cases had been handled. The state attorney general's office also issued an opinion in March 2006 that the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accounting Act, or HIPAA, forbade the release of some of the information.
"When things go wrong, government's first instinct is to not provide the information because they are going to look bad," Buckley told the committee. "If children are dying in our care, and we are not taking steps to prevent it from happening again, we are as guilty as the person who did it in the first place."
The bill was approved 41-0 by the Assembly on April 18. Now it needs only the approval of the entire Senate before it goes to Gov. Jim Gibbons for his signature.
"I see no reason why this bill won't pass," said Human Resources Chairman Maurice Washington, R-Sparks.
Buckley said legislators could get only cursory information, such as "child fatality" or "child now at home," when they sought information last year about cases in which the children had been killed or survived severe physical abuse or deaths when they were supposed to be under the care of the child welfare system.
"We were told federal law forbids release of information, yet federal officials urged us to make it public," she said.
In making her presentation, Buckley included a letter from federal child welfare officials backing the bill.
The bill calls for a child welfare agency to make public any reports or investigations regarding a child under its protection who died or nearly died of abuse or neglect.
The reports about children who died while in protective custody must be given to any person who requests them within 48 hours of such a request or, in a case of a near-fatality, within five business days of the request. The identity of the child would not be made public.
The bill also says that whenever a child who is under state or local protection is missing, child welfare agencies "may" release specific information about that child, including their photograph and name, for the purpose of helping locate the child.
The bill also specifies the legislative auditor's office must be given copies of all information compiled by child welfare agencies about the deaths or near-deaths of children. If local or state government welfare agencies or their lawyers refuse to release those reports to citizens who request them, then the legislative auditor would decide if they should be released.
Buckley said she hopes child welfare agencies will release the information without a fight so citizens do not have to go to the legislative auditor.
"We hope the statute is so clear there won't be a dispute," she said. "I thought the statute was clear before. Even though we had a statute to allow the release of information, we still could not get it."
She noted the attorney general's office could not release information about children's deaths because it represents the state Division of Child and Family Services. That agency is charged with protecting thousands of children removed from their parents. People might request information about the deaths of some children under the state agency's custody. The attorney general's office then would face the dilemma of whether to release negative information about a client.
To avoid a conflict, the legislative auditor was chosen as the gatekeeper, Buckley said.
"If the information is stonewalled, they can go to the legislative auditor to get it," she said.
Buckley said the bill was not meant to interfere in a police investigation of foster parents who might be accused of killing a child.
She said the legislation is designed to find out whether previous cases of abuse involving a child had occurred and what steps the child welfare agency had been taking to stop such incidents.
"This is more directed at the agency," she said. "Did they visit the home? Were they on top of the case?"
Mike Willden, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, said most inquiries he receives on children's deaths come from the media who have heard about a the death of a child on scanners that monitor police radio traffic.
He said his agency wants to take a proactive stance and have information available to the media before it asks.
Washington questioned why the media should be given the reports.
"Federal law requires this information to be available to the public," Buckley said. "If not for the media, we would not have known about these deaths. Sad, but true."