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Feds call for input on reporting laws for abuse-related child deaths

Nevada isn’t alone in dealing with conflicting interpretations of state and federal laws on the public disclosure of abuse-related child fatalities.

Other states struggle with the same issue, a plight that’s drawn the attention of federal officials who are now attempting to better understand the “breadth of opinion in the field.”

On March 22, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported on the clash between Nevada and Clark County over what state and federal laws actually require when it comes to reporting child deaths and near deaths to the public.

Shortley after, the federal Administration of Children and Families announced it would be gathering public comment on the issue, with input being accepted until the end of June.

The division of the federal Department of Health and Human Services “is aware of conflicting opinions in the field regarding how the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act disclosure requirements should be interpreted and implemented,” spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said in an email this week.

He didn’t specify what prompted the call for public comment, but said the purpose is to gain a better understanding about the conflicting opinions.

In Nevada so far this year, the state Division of Child and Family Services took it upon itself to publicly report six child fatalities or near fatalities that Clark County did not. The county’s decision was based on advice from the district attorney’s office. The state’s action was based on a different interpretation of disclosure laws from the Nevada attorney general’s office.

In 2014, the state filed public disclosure reports for five of 35 child fatalities or near fatalities in Clark County. The disclosures are posted on a state website. The remaining 30 deaths were reported by the county, according to records.

The federal public comment period began March 31 and runs through June 29. States, agencies and others interested in submitting comments can do so electronically at http://www.regulations.gov/. Mailed statements should be sent to: Kathleen McHugh; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Policy Division, 8th Floor; 1250 Maryland Avenue, SW.; Washington, D.C. 20024.

“This notice provides all interested parties the opportunity to fully explain their views and proposed alternatives, where appropriate, for our review and consideration,” Wolfe said. “We will determine next steps, if any, upon review of the comments submitted.”

Mary Woods, spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, said state officials are reviewing the request for feedback.

State officials are looking at whether a response would be appropriate and whether it would be helpful for Nevada to provide one, Woods said.

Catherine Jorgenson, deputy district attorney in the civil division of the Clark County district attorney’s office, did not comment on the federal call for input. “It would be great to have a uniform interpretation,” she added

Christine James-Brown, chief executive officer with the Washington, D.C.-based Child Welfare League of America, said inconsistency in interpreting child death disclosure laws has been an issue for some time.

“The confusion gets in the way of what we all want to see happen, which is a reduction of child deaths,” she said this week. ‘But you can’t always do that if you can’t track the numbers.

The conflict is most prevalent in states that have county-run child welfare systems in addition to the state system, said David Sanders, chairman of the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, a national advocacy organization formed in 2010 to address the escalating number of children in the United States who die each year from abuse and neglect.

“It’s one of the major issues that we deal with as a commission,” Sanders said.

Federal officials are seeking input to develop guidelines around the issue of confidentiality, noted Sanders.

“But part of the challenge is that states then have the responsibility to make sure that their laws are consistent with the federal guidelines,” he said.

If states have laws that are not clear, it’s incumbent on the state Legislature to make the law as clear as possible once the federal guidelines are provided, he added.

States such as Utah have a better handle on the issue. Conflicting legal opinions on disclosure of child fatalities hasn’t been a problem, said Charri Brummer, deputy director at the Utah Division and Child and Family Services.

“Utah is a state-run agency and so we don’t have any competing interpretations from attorneys,” she said this week. “We are represented by the (state’s) attorney general’s office and that is helpful.”

Contact Yesenia Amaro at yamaro@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0440. Find her on Twitter: @YeseniaAmaro.

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