Bill about protecting children

Most of us have a pretty good notion of what it means when we say someone almost died.

For John Broden, the Democratic state senator from South Bend, defining a near death — as it applies to when records should become public in the case of a child’s near fatality — has become frustratingly difficult.

Nevertheless, Broden resubmitted such a definition in the Indiana Senate.

State and federal law have long required the cases of fatalities and near fatalities of children to be made public, so that society as a whole can learn what lessons may arise from one child’s death that might identify a weak link in the system or raise general awareness of all of us.

In an increasingly “confidential” child protection system, those failures — because we all have failed when a child is allowed to die or nearly die from abuse or neglect — are the few real glimpses most of us have into how the system works, or does not work.

In Indiana, the lack of a definitive description has led attorneys of the Indiana Department of Child Services to develop its own, more restrictive policy as how to describe a child’s near death. And a local judge has turned down requests to release information about children who survived tragedy, citing imprecise language in both state and federal descriptions.

Even Broden, who earlier in his career was a DCS attorney, had never heard of such a record being made public. So this time last year, he submitted a bill that attempted to rectify that.

A DCS lobbyist warned legislators in an early committee meeting that such a move might jeopardize millions of federal dollars. So Broden willingly let the bill go, undertaking discussions with others over the summer and researching other states’ definitions. He was told there was a consensus on the language, and it had the support of DCS.

He learned DCS intends to pull back its support of the bill.

DCS attorneys had sent word “they agreed we’d addressed their concerns,” Broden said last week. He was disappointed when the DCS lobbyist told him recently, “‘We’d just rather continue to work on the bill.’ … We had done a lot of work on this.”

That work included research that shows other states, such as New Jersey and Colorado, have long used similar language to this year’s bill and still receive federal funding. “So that should not be used to object to the bill this time.”

A DCS spokeswoman reiterated that argument in an email: “If Indiana adopts a definition in state law that conflicts with federal law, it could impact DCS eligibility for federal funding.”

My own research this summer into other states and their definitions showed other states are all over the board, and some just use the federal language. Some states post near-fatality information on their websites. In the past year, some national child protection groups have called for greater attention to the near-deaths of children.

Language was added to this year’s bill to encourage further discussion of how releasing medical information about children who survive these horrific cases of abuse and neglect should be balanced with their privacy as they grow up. And law enforcement has requested keeping confidential some details of ongoing criminal investigations in those cases, at least until the investigation has ended.

DCS urges the confidentiality issue be examined thoroughly. That is an important concept to vet.

But let’s also consider this for a moment: If a young child survives a horrific set of circumstances, upon whom does that really reflect? The thought that he or she will grow up and discover that others may know of certain events should not be considered a source of shame for a child. And laws already protect the victims of sex crimes.

Hiding from public view all names and details instead protects those who may have let a child down. It does not further the larger goal of government transparency, nor instill greater awareness of how a village might save our next child.

Broden, for his part, is optimistic the bill stands a good chance of surviving this year. Sen. Ronald Grooms, R-Jeffersonville, has assigned it for hearing in the Committee on Family & Children Services, which he chairs. Grooms has also recently signed on as the bill’s co-author.

Let’s not allow further political wrangling — or fear of loss of control — keep us from learning all we can about protecting Indiana’s children.

How would you describe ‘near death’?

Here’s a synopsis of Senate Bill 131:

Defines “life threatening” as a condition that: (1) is categorized as “serious” or “critical” in patient hospital records; or (2) results in critical care treatment for at least 24 hours following a child’s admission to a critical care unit.

Changes the definition of “near fatality,” for purposes of the law concerning records relating to a child’s death or near fatality, to a severe childhood injury or condition that is certified by a physician as being life threatening.

Urges the legislative council to assign to the interim study committee on public health, behavioral health, and human services or another appropriate interim study committee the topics of medical records confidentiality and medical records disclosure in instances of child abuse or neglect.

Virginia Black is a writer for the South Bend Tribune.