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W.Va. gets B- for child abuse laws

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Advocacy groups studying the transparency of child abuse laws gave West Virginia a B- on Tuesday for its mandatory reporting laws, the same grade it earned four years ago.

The Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego and a group called First Star are releasing their most recent state-by-state assessment since 2008. The report says about 1,700 children nationwide died because of abuse last year, yet many states still have restrictive laws that could prevent the identification of potential tragedies.

West Virginia gets a perfect score for having a law that requires public disclosure of information about abuse and neglect cases that result in death or a near fatality, and for providing easy access.

However, the report says the state's policy is "vague and unclear." While it authorizes the release of information in deaths and near-death cases, it doesn't specify what kind of information is to be shared.

The report also faults West Virginia for keeping court proceedings involving abuse and neglect private.

"There is still the pervasive, primitive mentality that continues -- that children are chattel, that children belong to their parents and only the parents have authority to do things and say things and release information," said the report's primary author, Amy Harfeld, senior staff attorney for the Children's Advocacy Institute.

"It's a wider issue," she said. "It's a lack of civil rights for children."

Marsha Dadisman, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, said multiple state laws and regulations require proceedings involving children to remain private, including abuse and neglect cases.

"The rules regarding closed and confidential proceedings are not meant to protect the adults," she said. "They are meant to shield the children."

In abuse and neglect cases, it can be difficult and emotionally traumatic for a child to testify, Dadisman said.

"Records that are open to the public may have a significant traumatic effect on the child," she said.

Harfeld said child advocates agree that families have some right to privacy, but only to a point.

"When a family has become enmeshed in the child welfare system, they no longer have that presumption of privacy," she said. The safety of the child involved -- as well as other children who might be at risk -- then takes precedence.

"States have this warped understanding of what the confidentiality laws are supposed to protect," Harfeld said. " . . . When a child has already died, obviously the only people left to protect are the state and the perpetrators."

In 2010, the latest year for which figures are available, abuse and neglect killed eight West Virginia children. That's a rate of 2.07 per 100,000 children, the same as the national rate.

Harfeld said state officials should provide as much information as they have on fatalities and life-threatening injuries because it creates accountability for people whose job is to protect children.

"Children don't vote, don't pay taxes and don't usually complain when things don't go their way," she said, while those involved "have tremendous power" over their fates. "Who is overseeing the process?"

The institute wants every state to release the following: the age of children involved in abuse and neglect cases; the cause of death; how many previous contacts the family had with child-welfare authorities; what services were or were not provided to the family; what oversight and monitoring was done; and where was the child living at the time of death.

Knowing that a child died in a group home, for example, might prompt a review of how the state regulates group homes or an investigation of the home's manager.

The advocacy groups want Congress to pass bipartisan legislation to create a special commission that would come up with ways to reduce the number of child abuse deaths.

Deaths are tragedies, said the institute's director, Robert C. Fellmeth, but "also a red flag that something has gone terribly wrong with the child welfare system."


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