A step back in the child abuse fight

South Bend Tribune

A bill winding its way through the Indiana General Assembly represents a step back in maintaining a more open and responsive process when it comes to protecting Hoosier children.

Senate Bill 551, authored by Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, would prevent public disclosure of the circumstances leading to the deaths or near deaths of children from abuse or neglect in cases in which criminal prosecutions are pending.

But with cases that go through the trial courts or later are appealed, that could prevent the public release of the information for years, according to Steve Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association.

An earlier law requires the Department of Child Services to release, upon request, any records related to the case histories of abused children. That statute, adopted in the early 2000s, was intended to give abused and neglected children a better chance of surviving and going on to lead productive lives if the public knows about problems in the child welfare system.

David Powell, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, supported SB 551 at a recent committee hearing. Powell said a judge incorrectly released an unredacted coroner’s report to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Such releases make it more difficult to prosecute cases and find an impartial jury to ensure a fair trial, he said.

But as Key said, “one human error is not the basis to change the entire statute.”

Gov. Eric Holcomb has vowed to take steps to improve the DCS following the very public resignation of former director Mary Beth Bonaventura, who told the governor that cuts in funding and services were putting children at risk and that she feared “lives will be lost and families ruined.”

To that end, Holcomb announced plans to use $25 million from the state’s surplus fund to increase DCS employees’ salaries, improve staff training and the supervisor-to-caseworker ratio.

A more open system is critical in preventing future tragedies. More transparency could help ensure that those entrusted with the welfare of Indiana’s children are being held accountable.

Messmer’s bill is a step backward in that fight.

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