Four days after Missouri child welfare officials pledged more openness on records involving recent child tragedies, they appeared Tuesday to quickly shut the door again.
At least temporarily.
The Missouri Department of Social Services agreed on Friday to release records in the case of a Kansas City girl, known only as LP, found locked in a closet last summer.
But agency officials did not address a second area case, the October death of 4-year-old Lucas Webb from Holt, Mo. A DSS attorney said Tuesday the agency needed a month to determine whether to release any information. Yet The Kansas City Star initially requested those records two months ago. At the time, the agency said it would make a decision by mid-March.
Top House leaders have pressured DSS in recent weeks to release records after a child fatality or near fatality. They sent a letter Tuesday to the agency’s director expressing their frustration and expecting action within days.
“This response is both disappointing and unacceptable,” wrote House Speaker Tim Jones and Rep. Jay Barnes, chairman of a government oversight committee. “Missourians deserve a more transparent and responsive government. We also encourage (the agency) to implement a permanent policy for disclosing records relating to child deaths or near deaths to ensure that future requests are handled more efficiently.”
They want the agency to decide on Lucas’ records by the end of Monday.
“If you choose not to release the information at that time,” they wrote, “we will request to discuss your rationale.”
Rep. Bill Lant, a Joplin Republican who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, said that when an agency refuses to release records, it creates the appearance of a cover-up.
“Hopefully that’s not the case,” Lant said. “What’s happened has happened, and the records should be made public.”
In a joint investigation last month, The Star and the Springfield News-Leader found that DSS had apparently shifted its philosophy regarding the disclosure of records. After more than three years of routinely releasing information, officials for more than nine months have denied requests for documents.
The change started after June 22, when then-10-year-old LP was found locked in a dark closet amid her own urine and feces. She weighed just 32 pounds. LP had been placed under state supervision in 2006 and was returned to her mother the next year.
After the LP case, the agency refused to release records in three child deaths across the state last year. It also had not released records in a double child fatality this year in southwest Missouri.
In Lucas’ case, several people had reported possible abuse to the state hotline, said his mother, Brooke Barnes.
“They need to release these records,” she said. “It would show that (DSS) was brought in more than once. They had been called on numerous occasions. And people need to be able to see what they did.”
Prosecutors say Lucas’ stepmother kicked him to death on Oct. 15.
After the House leaders sent their letter to DSS on Tuesday afternoon, an agency spokeswoman emailed The Star and said it would take up to three weeks to prepare the LP file for release.
The Springfield News-Leader, however, received records in two separate cases Monday. Those records include the case of the two siblings whose bodies were found after a house fire in late February. Investigators discovered they had been stabbed and strangled to death. Their mother, whom authorities suspect of killing her two children, is believed to have set the fire and killed herself.
The release of any information has come after lawmakers have called on DSS to be more open. Two weeks ago, Jones, a Eureka Republican, announced that if Gov. Jay Nixon didn’t release the records, legislators would take action.
And last Thursday, Jay Barnes, chair of the House Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability, spoke to DSS Director Alan Freeman. Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican, said he reiterated to Freeman how vital releasing information is to government transparency and the issue would be addressed in an upcoming hearing.
Yet Brian Kinkade, deputy director of DSS, said recent pressure had nothing to do with the decision to disclose in a few cases under question.
“It has everything to do with what’s in the best interest of the children,” said Kinkade, who was the interim director of DSS when LP was rescued and agency officials first refused to release information. “It’s not a perfect black and white answer to this. It’s all very gray in terms of the decision the director has to make. Circumstances change, conditions change, and with all the media attention on the cases in question, it was a situation we evaluated and looked at and made a decision that maybe it’s time to release those records.”