The hows and whys behind individual cases of child death in Nevada may continue to be withheld from the public.
On Monday, State Director of Health and Human Services Mike Willden asked a Senate committee to jettison three sections of a proposed bill submitted by an agency he supervises.
The child welfare legislation in question, Assembly Bill 263, now includes a provision that would have subjected local child death review teams to the state’s open meeting law. The bill draft also would have required the teams to release meeting summaries to the public.
Willden explained to the members of the Senate Committee on Human Resources and Education that members of the local child death review teams — made up of representatives from law enforcement, medicine, child welfare and schools — were concerned that requiring public meetings would restrict the scope of their work because much of the information they deal with is confidential under the law.
Dr. Neha Mehta, a child maltreatment specialist who is co-chairwoman of the Clark County Child Fatality Review Team, voiced her objections in written testimony.
“Many sensitive issues are discussed in the Child Fatality Review forum — issues of drug and alcohol use, mental health history, sexual orientation, etc., which would not be appropriate for public curiosity and consumption,” Mehta said.
Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said she respects the need for confidentiality. However, she also has lobbied for a more open system in the interest of preventing future child deaths and improving the investigations of the deaths that do take place.
In 2006, an expert panel released a report that showed 79 Clark County child deaths between 2001 and 2004 were suspicious. The deaths should have been investigated for abuse and neglect and were not.
“This isn’t a done deal,” Leslie said of the proposed legislation. “The bottom line is that we have more work to do.”
The bills still have to go through a Senate work session, Leslie said, and will eventually come back to the Assembly, where changes can still be made. Much of Assembly Bill 263 expands the oversight that the state would have over county welfare agencies, including penalties that can be imposed if corrective action plans are not being followed.
Leslie said she wants to clarify why Willden is proposing the cuts to the proposal and if there is some legal reason for doing so.
In addition to cutting the open meeting requirement, Willden also asked that the Senate take out language that would have required Nevada district attorneys to notify courts of cases involving child fatalities and explain their decisions to prosecute or not prosecute in each case.
Child advocate Donna Coleman said keeping the public in the dark about details of child deaths is an impediment to reform. “Once a child is dead, who are we really protecting?” Coleman asked. “Every single time we’ve had leaked information on child deaths, we’ve found out the system isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing.”
Leslie pointed out that other proposed legislation would create more transparency in the system. A bill draft from Assemblywoman Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, is specific to child welfare agencies and would require them to release more details about their history with children involved in fatalities or near-fatalities.
Other child welfare bills introduced to the Senate committee include:
•Assembly Bill 147, which aims to keep young children out of group-care settings. With few exceptions, it calls for children ages 3 years and under to be placed immediately into foster homes, where they will have individual attention. It also calls for the same practice to be instituted for children up to the age of 6 years by 2009.
•Assembly Bill 507, which outlines training requirements for employees in facilities that house children. It also calls for state licensing and inspections of those facilities.2007