There is nothing as heart-wrenching as learning that a child has died, especially when it is the result of child abuse or neglect. As a father, I am particularly sensitive to the suffering endured by parents, siblings and family members grieving the loss of a young life. Unfortunately, no governmental agency will ever be able to totally eliminate such deaths, but I continue in my role because protecting children and supporting families matters to me in a way that few other things do.
Lately, critics of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, or DCF, have become fixated on the most tragic cases our state has witnessed in recent years, pulling details out of context to paint an inaccurate picture of the department’s operations as lacking transparency. I believe this is based on the media’s misunderstanding of the laws under which DCF must operate.
Our child protection workers, judges and law enforcement officers make agonizing decisions every day as they fight to protect children. To support this aim, state and federal governments have established an intricate set of laws, declaring such information as confidential and prohibiting the release of information to the public to protect young victims.
The one exception to the prohibition against the release of information is the event of a child fatality or near fatality that is the result of child abuse or neglect. Even then, the well-being of all surviving family members — particularly the surviving siblings — is of paramount concern and their information is still subject to strict confidentiality.
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So should have been the case involving Clint Blansett, whose son Caleb was tragically murdered by his mother in December 2014. Blansett still had a minor child, whom the court had a duty to protect and whose information had to be kept confidential.
Contrary to media reports, DCF does not issue “gag orders.” Rather, this was a rare instance in which a court ordered Blansett, as custodial parent, not to speak with the media as part of a safety plan for the surviving sibling.
Second, DCF is not a law enforcement agency. It does not have the authority to unilaterally search or even enter a person’s home if the occupant denies agents entry. DCF staff and social workers work tirelessly to investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect, but they rely upon the assistance of the district attorney or law enforcement to remove a child from a home that does not appear to be safe.
Most recently, the media has published a series of reports declaring that DCF is deliberately secretive to protect the agency from negative press. Nothing could be further from the truth. When information can be released without violating state and federal law or the privacy of young children, that information is shared readily.
The difference between the priorities of DCF and those of the media were on display a little more than a week ago, when a local television station used the photos of foster children whose story had been highlighted in recent days in a story about the station’s perception of transparency issues at DCF. This should never have happened. Publicly broadcasting these children’s pictures and confidential details to make a point against the agency is irresponsible and shortsighted. It creates serious consequences in the lives of vulnerable children, interfering with their attempts to live a healthy life despite their circumstances.
I hope that in the future, the media will respect the fact that both the federal and state governments for decades have recognized the need for confidentiality in these cases, and that DCF is bound by law to follow these statutes regardless of controversy that ensues.
I have inquired into the repeated allegations of a former DCF employee about shredding records. The truth is that policy is not to intentionally destroy records, and anything disposed of was to ensure that personal notes are not construed as agency materials.
While DCF works to protect children from physical harm, the priority of the agency is keeping children safe and families together whenever possible — period. Everything else is secondary. The public has a right to know what is happening in government agencies, but the agencies must follow the law. While this doesn’t lend itself to sensational headlines, it does facilitate the protection of children and families, which is more important.
David Davies is general counsel for the Kansas Department for Children and Families.