More than two years ago, California lawmakers decided the death of a child from abuse was such a grave affront that the public should know about each case in detail.
The resulting legislation, Senate Bill 39, took effect in 2008 and mandated broad disclosure of information about child abuse deaths, from police files to medical records.
But perhaps the most critical information about the cause of death in such cases can now be hidden from public eyes.
On Saturday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 5, called the “Deceased Child Victims’ Protection and Privacy Act.”
The measure, nearly unopposed in the state Assembly and Senate, empowers the parent (biological, legal, or by marriage) of a child who died as a result of a crime to have the autopsy report sealed.
The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office initiated the legislation. But unlike many similar exemptions to the state public records law, the child autopsy bill is not driven by law enforcement concern about undermining criminal investigation.
The coroner or medical examiner cannot seal the autopsy report until “a person has been convicted and sentenced for committing that crime” that caused the child’s death, according an analysis by the state Senate Rules Committee.
Instead, the law’s passage was motivated out of concern for the emotional impact on the families of child victims.
“These families who have endured such horrific tragedies shouldn’t be victimized a second time by the public airing of these autopsy reports,” said the bill's author, Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, in a prepared statement.
Of course, Hollingsworth was talking about the media when he mentioned families being revictimized. Newspapers, TV stations and websites use records such as autopsy reports to tell the stories of what happened to these children.
Interestingly, the opening section of SB 39 two years ago specifically discussed information dissemination as critical to advancing public safety. The legislation states:
A child’s death from abuse or neglect often leads to calls for reform of the public child protection system. Without accurate and complete information about the circumstances leading to the child’s death, public debate is stymied and the reforms, if adopted at all, may do little to prevent further tragedies.
Providing public access to juvenile case files in cases where a child fatality occurs as a result of abuse or neglect will promote public scrutiny and an informed debate of the circumstances that led to the fatality thereby promoting the development of child protection, policies, procedures, practices, and strategies that will reduce or avoid future child deaths and injuries.
Death records, with the exception of autopsy photographs, have previously been freely distributed in California, used by both the press and public agencies to track violence against children.
Even with state laws requiring disclosure, officials at times hide the information anyway.
The Los Angeles Times has recently reported that the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services did not disclose dozens of child deaths as related to abuse.
As the Times reports:
In addition to the inaccurate picture provided to the public, the undisclosed deaths also escaped review by the county's child-death investigator, Rosemarie Belda. Belda is responsible for recommending reforms to address any systemic issues at play in the deaths, and she can investigate only cases assigned to her by the Board of Supervisors, the county executive or [Department of Children and Family Services Director Trish] Ploehn.
It was also unclear if officials had disciplined any social workers for errors that may have contributed to the undisclosed fatalities.