Officials seal 2 fatal LI child protective cases

Authorities have found the remains of a toddler, Justin Kowalczik, in a 3-foot grave in the backyard of a Hallock Street home in Farmingdale, State Police said Saturday, and are investigating the boyfriend of the child's mother. Videojournalist: Ed Betz (Oct. 6, 2012)

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Since the discovery of the body of a 17-month-old boy buried in a backyard in Farmingdale in October and the beating death of a 4-year-old boy in Amityville in January, Suffolk County and state officials have refused to disclose any information about the cases, citing state confidentiality laws.

The secrecy surrounding the CPS investigations of Justin Kowalczik, 17 months, and Adonis Reed, 4, who died from blows inflicted by the boyfriend of his legal guardian, reflects New York's adherence to a strict confidentiality policy in fatal child protective cases -- even as other states have revamped their laws to increase access to data about fatal cases.

National child advocacy groups say the release of information about such cases can shine a spotlight on failures in the child protective system and lead to fixes.

But state and Suffolk officials say confidentiality protects the interests of surviving siblings and family members.

Two state lawmakers -- State Sens. Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo) and George Maziarz (R-Newfane) -- are drafting legislation that would increase access to child abuse records in fatal cases.

"We want to protect future children and ensure transparency," said Doug Curella, Grisanti's staff chief and legal adviser.

The death last April of a 10-year-old Erie County boy, whose stepfather was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life after he confessed to bludgeoning him to death with a rolling pin, prompted the legislative effort. The state cited provisions in social service law allowing officials to withhold information to protect the "best interests" of surviving siblings in refusing a Freedom of Information Law request by The Buffalo News to release a "child fatality review" report conducted into the boy's death.

The senators are examining whether a provision in social service law allowing officials to withhold information to protect the "best interests" of surviving siblings has effectively narrowed the scope of a 1996 state law that was meant to increase access to records in fatal cases, Curella said.

"Elisa's Law" named after Elisa Izquierdo, 6, of Manhattan, who was beaten to death by her mother in 1995, was billed by state lawmakers as a way to increase accountability of local CPS bureaus that often grapple with large caseloads and high employee turnover.

State and Suffolk County officials have refused to respond to Newsday questions about whether Adonis or Justin, who both have surviving siblings, ever were under the watch of CPS.

Each New York county has a CPS bureau, and New York City has one covering the five boroughs.

Pat Cantiello, spokeswoman for the state Office of Children and Family Services, said that while child fatality reports do not contain names of victims and family members, "it is often obvious from the dates and circumstances listed in the report, which family is involved."

Dennis Nowack, director of Suffolk County's Child Protective Services Bureau, said that if parents and relatives "were subject to [CPS] districts talking about their cases they may be less willing to cooperate with our investigators or with the courts."

Nassau Social Services spokeswoman Karen Garber declined to comment on the department's disclosure practices due to pending litigation involving the 2008 case of Leatrice Brewer, who stabbed and drowned her three children in their New Cassel home.

During the Brewer inquiry, state and county officials released information concerning the family's CPS history because there were no surviving siblings. A state found that Brewer had been reported to CPS on eight occasions, but caseworkers performed incomplete investigations. Nassau subsequently fired one-part time caseworker, demoted a supervisor and increased training for mental health issues.

John Mattingly, commissioner for New York City's Administration of Children's Services from 2004 to 2011, said the release of information often was a "tough call." But he said he often "erred on the side of public disclosure" because it can lead to systemic improvements.

Mattingly, a senior fellow for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national child advocacy group based in Baltimore, recalled how a special panel's examination of records related to the fatal 2006 beating of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown in Brooklyn led to the hiring of 500 caseworkers. The city also began requiring CPS workers to seek court orders to enter homes when denied access, after Brown's stepfather repeatedly blocked workers at the door.

"It seemed to me the public had a right to know," Mattingly said. "What came from that was an enormous child safety project . . . these terrible events do sometimes lead to really important changes."

Florida, California and Oklahoma are among 27 states with laws allowing the release of information once a child's death has been linked to abuse. Most redact sibling information.

"Mistakes are going to happen . . .," said Erin Gillespie, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Children and Families. "We need to learn by talking about it."

 

 

Disclosure in fatal child protective cases

 

How some other states handle release of information in the event of the child's death:

FLORIDA: Within 24-hours of a child abuse-related death the state's Department of Children and Families can typically confirm to media whether the child had a previous case history with the department. The child's case file usually becomes public record, available upon request, within two to three days of the incident, said department spokeswoman Erin Gillespie. Information concerning siblings is redacted.

CALIFORNIA: Once investigators determine that a child has died from abuse or neglect the state can release information about the circumstances and past CPS investigations of the child's family. Under a state public access law approved in 2008, members of the news media can petition the court for a child's entire Family Court file. However, several petitions remain tied up in the courts, according to the National Youth Law Center.

OKLAHOMA:

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State law gives the Department of Human Services up to 45 days to release a summary of a child's previous history with the department after criminal charges have been filed in the child's death. Information about surviving siblings and relatives is redacted.

Sources: States' websites; National Youth Law Center

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