Magazine article Nieman Reports

Fighting to Break the Barrier of Confidentiality

Magazine article Nieman Reports

Fighting to Break the Barrier of Confidentiality

Article excerpt

When children in the child welfare system die, reporters work to find out why.

In 1989, my newspaper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and I went to court to gain access to the records of children who had died after coming to the attention of our child welfare department, the Department of Family and Children Services (DFACS) in Georgia. We did this only after being told federal confidentiality laws and regulations forbid the release of the files. We argued in court that they did not. We furthermore argued that the public's need to know what happened to children who had died after coming under the state's protection outweighed any privacy interests of a deceased child. The court agreed and ordered the state to give me the complete files.

In 1990, in response to a series of stories I wrote based on the records, the governor and legislature passed seven laws to reform the child welfare system, including one that was to loosen confidentiality laws when a child had died. Specifically, it set in law a process by which a reporter could go to court and argue for the records as part of "bona fide research." The language tracked federal confidentiality regulations.

Ten years later, we decided to look at how well these decade-old laws were working.

Again, I asked DFACS for the records of all children in Georgia who had died after someone had reported them for abuse or neglect. I assumed that based on the 1990 law, and the previous court decision, we would have no problem. I was wrong. DFACS fought harder than ever to keep the records closed. …

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