Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Secrecy Fosters Abuse

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Secrecy Fosters Abuse

Article excerpt

Cases of children lost or mistreated while in the care of the state show how confidentiality acts to protect not kids but bureaucrats

For four years, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) didn't have a clue about where Shalis Gama might have fled with her son -- and her chilling history of drug abuse. "Mother and child seem to have dropped from the face of the earth," the mystified agency reported at one point.

But in a May 4 story, Chicago Tribune reporters Ofelia Casillas and Diana Rado wrote that the newspaper, using public records and the boy's DCFS case file, had tracked down mother and son in a matter of hours.

Their feat was nothing new for a Tribune Co. paper. Last summer, reporters Sally Kestin, Diana Marrero, and Megan O'Matz of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale went looking for 24 wards of the state who were listed as missing by the Florida Department of Children & Families (DCF). They found nine.

For their efforts, the newspapers did not get so much as a thank-you from the state agencies. In Illinois, DCFS bureaucrats didn't even ask the Tribune where the boy was living. In Florida, DCF officials -- so tragically incompetent that they could not locate more than 500 children supposedly in foster care -- just crouched lower behind stone walls. The Sun-Sentinel sued and won five times over information, but DCF still drags its feet, said projects team leader Rosemary Armao: "They've hurt [our investigations] by doling out information piecemeal, and taking a long time to do it. …

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