Redact Attack

Secrecy at CPS must change before real reform of this broken agency can begin

Another child was kidnapped and murdered by a mother with a similarly long history of reported abuse and drug problems.

Several other reports convincingly argue that children were placed in dangerous environments after they were taken from parents or guardians by CPS. Others complain that CPS and other state agencies withheld critical information about the welfare of the child in question once they were removed from a home.

One complaint comes from foster parents angry that CPS did not inform them that the child they were taking into their home had a history of sexually abusive behavior toward younger children. The foster child proceeded to sexually abuse the foster parents' three young children.

Copies of letters released by Child Protective Services - with redactions.
Copies of letters released by Child Protective Services - with redactions.

The list goes on.

Legislators are currently looking at two competing bills designed to reform CPS, House Bill 2004 and Senate Bill 1007.

The Senate bill, authored by respected victims' rights attorney Steve Twist and Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, is clearly the more comprehensive reform bill. It also clearly addresses CPS' problem with hiding behind vague confidentiality rules.

Besides calling for the Legislature to create a wholly independent child protection agency (CPS is currently a division of the Department of Economic Security), the Senate bill clearly defines the limit of the agency's ability to withhold information.

The bill states that the new child protective services would "be open and accountable to the public for the actions of the department" and will "maintain open public records except that the identity and location of the alleged victim shall be protected."

Interestingly, that language is similar to what the courts have viewed as acceptable disclosure when CPS takes the media on ride-alongs. Barker, who won't release even the tiniest bit of information about a case when it comes to complaints against caseworkers, is more than happy to do so when it comes to furthering her own ends. She says CPS encourages reporters to tag along with beleaguered CPS caseworkers so the agency can convince reporters just how beleaguered the caseworkers really are. In those circumstances, CPS petitions a judge to issue a court order prohibiting the media from disclosing "names, addresses, likenesses or any other information that could reasonably lead to the identification of a person." I don't think the court had Barker's redactomatic pen in mind when it was thinking of information that could reasonably identify a victim or family.

Withholding essentially only the names and addresses of CPS clients is simple, forthright and effective at balancing the protection of children and families against the public's legitimate interest in whether a critical public entity is operating appropriately.

"I'm obviously a strong proponent of protecting victims in these cases," says Twist, who has authored most of Arizona's existing laws regarding victims' rights. "But at the same time, I'm very supportive of a rigorous press and the idea that sunlight is a great disinfectant. In this case, we must make sure that important information is no longer hidden under the guise of protecting children."

E-mail, or call 602-744-6549.

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