Child Abuse

Article excerpt

Disclosure laws passed after battle for records; compliance of law tested

Public records are the foundation for many, if not most, good investigative projects. But this is a story about a project for which many of the key records were not public - and about how our persistent reporting led to changes that opened a whole new category of records in our state.

It began with 4-year-old Anthony Bars. He died in January 2002, his little body battered and severely emaciated. He weighed just 24 pounds, half what a normal child his age should weigh. It was a horrific case of abuse by adoptive foster parents, but it received little notice in the media, garnering just a brief in the local paper. It took five months for prosecutors to file charges against the parents and a year and a half more for the case to come to trial.

All that time, there was a secret about the case waiting to be unearthed. We learned about it from a source while we were in the middle of an investigation into child abuse that occurs in state-licensed foster homes. It turned out the state hadn't done a proper background check before placing Anthony Bars into the home where he ended up getting killed. A proper check would have revealed a history of abuse by the adoptive father, including a battery conviction for tying his daughter to an exercise bike and whipping her with an extension cord.

The Bars case became the centerpiece of what would turn into 16 months of coverage of problems in Indiana's child welfare system. The first series showed how the state was failing to protect children it had removed from abusive homes and placed into foster care. In addition to the Anthony Bars example, we documented numerous instances of children abused in foster care. We were surprised to find the federal government actually has a standard for the number of such cases states are allowed to have while receiving federal funds - and we discovered that Indiana was 28 percent above that limit.

Put to the test

For that initial report, we had to rely on sources to provide us with internal documents on the case. In Indiana at the time, all Child Protective Services case reports were exempt from disclosure under the state's public records law.

After we brought our findings to state legislators, however, they responded by introducing a bill to open up those files in cases in which children died of abuse or neglect. We continued to push the issue with dozens of stories reporting developments and the progress of the proposed legislation. The bill was passed and signed in the spring of 2004, creating a new set of public records and paving the way for the next phase of our reporting.

When the law went into effect the following July, we promptly put it to the test. We wanted to be the first to attempt an exhaustive look at child deaths in the state, so we asked the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) for all abuse and neglect fatality files for the previous two years. It wasn't an easy road. We faced roadblocks from FSSA, which stalled and avoided our requests and forced us to get our lawyer involved, and from some county judges who interpreted the law extremely narrowly.

Under the law, the agency is required to forward the requested files to judges in the counties where the deaths occurred. The judges are charged with redacting any "non-relevant" information. The process took months. First, the state took an inordinate amount of time to release the records, allowing them to trickle out one or two at a time. Some judges, in turn, heavily redacted the files. Among the items blacked out on some files: victims' names; perpetrators' names; and even portions of published newspaper articles included in the files. Reconstructing the cases from the files became a major test of our shoe-leather skills. …