The Spokesman-Review

Opinion

Guest opinion: Child welfare files still hazy

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the death of 7-year-old Tyler DeLeon, who lived and died in Washington’s child welfare system.

It didn’t have to happen.

Tyler, who weighed 28 pounds at the time of his autopsy, had been placed in the home of a foster mother whose records of alleged abuse dated back to the 1980s – well before Tyler came into her home.

But because of a little-known and archaic state law that allowed government workers to inadvertently destroy her records, Carole Ann DeLeon’s history was washed clean.

Tyler’s death brought to light a state policy that allowed Washington’s child welfare officials to shred or incinerate thousands of old files on children once in its care. The exact number has been tough to discern – we do know that over the course of two years, the state’s Children’s Administration destroyed more than 4,000 folders regarding its troubled child welfare system in Spokane alone, as allowed by state law.

Placement histories. State investigations. The names of foster siblings. All gone.

Former foster children who requested their files from the state found that no record of their lives existed. Attorneys investigating civil cases found no paper trail.

Today, the state has taken laudable steps to improve its records system. It now plans to retain “founded” reports – those where investigators believe that abuse or neglect occurred – for 35 years. That provides adequate time for former foster children to come to terms with their pasts, and to track down the records that can prove so critical in criminal or civil cases. But inconsistencies remain.

At a time when the state has the opportunity to clarify and simplify its record-keeping system, it has opted for a muddled and confusing system for state workers. Even the most experienced of Washington’s social workers, who do life-changing work on a daily basis, have trouble understanding the state’s schedule.

For example, some records on Native American children are kept for 10 years. Foster parent training records are kept for 21 years. Out-of-state children placed in Washington homes have their records kept for 75 years. Children adopted from foster care have records maintained for 99 years.

More concerning is the state’s decision to continue to destroy “unfounded” allegations – those where an investigator determines “more likely than not, abuse did not occur” – after six years. Destroying those unfounded reports erases a critical record of a child’s life, even if investigators can’t demonstrate abuse occurred.

Here’s why: As few as one in 10 instances of abuse are confirmed by social services, according to a 2008 study in the journal Lancet.

That leaves a huge gap.

Too many barriers exist between the act of abuse and a finding of abuse. Not only must a child have the courage and the opportunity to come forward, but an investigator must find the evidence necessary to make the determination.

There are legitimate concerns about retaining these unfounded reports.

Foster parents rightly worry that a false report can linger for years. Storage is a nightmare, despite the advent of digital archives. Former foster children – those who may wish to be foster parents as adults – fear that state workers could go back and use their personal histories against them, though state leaders have explicitly said that those records cannot be used as the basis for disqualifying them.

But those concerns are trumped by the state’s obligation to thousands of children each day.

Benjamin Shors, a former reporter for The Spokesman-Review, is an assistant professor of journalism at Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. He can be reached at bshors@wsu.edu.


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