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August 19, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

- continued from yesterday.

While Mindi Stiglet tried to get the Hancock County (Mississippi) Sheriff’s office to do something about the fact that a DHS caseworker had forged a signature on a document in her file, the usual secrecy shrouded everything at DHS in mystery (Sun Herald, 8/12/16).

In that, Mississippi is much like many other states; child protective authorities routinely function outside the view of the press, the public and even lawmakers. And that is just how they like it. Time and again we see those agencies oppose even modest efforts at bringing sunlight into their dark spaces. Just recently, the California Legislature had such a bill before it, only to see it intransigently resisted by state child welfare officials. The same has been true in New York, Arizona and elsewhere.

Mississippi has one of the most secretive such agencies in the country. Even now, the Sun Herald is having difficulty getting any information about what happened in Mindi Stiglets’ case or with her criminal complaint about the forged signature.

Despite progress in the criminal investigation, difficulties have arisen because it involves an accusation against an employee of a state agency with great autonomy and confidentiality privileges. DHS and the county youth court system both operate under a blanket of secrecy largely unmatched by other public entities in the state.

Interestingly, one legal scholar has researched secrecy in child protective agencies and drawn some conclusions.

In recent decades, a number of states — either through their legislatures or courts — have opened juvenile proceedings with favorable results, according to a 2006 Indiana Law Review article by William Horne.

“In some cases, investigative news reports provided the impetus,” Horne wrote. “More often, and significantly, juvenile judges and juvenile justice officials brought about the change.”

Roughly a third of all states, including Mississippi, allow no public access at all to juvenile proceedings or records. Most other states allow some form of limited access, and about 14 operate under a directly open system, Horne said.

That article should make for interesting reading. After all, CPS agencies routinely cry foul at the very suggestion that the public that pays their salaries might be entitled to know what they’re doing with our kids. So any analysis of the results of opening those agencies to public scrutiny would be worthwhile. Does making the information public lead to the horrors invariably claimed by CPS? Or does it have the salutary effect so many of us predict?

I’ve long argued that secrecy does children no good and in fact harms them. When no one can police CPS except CPS, inevitably, the behavior of CPS employees becomes less than the best. Secrecy allows employees to cover up negligent wrongdoing and even criminal behavior. In case anyone would like to notice, that’s exactly what happened in Mindi Stiglets’ case. A DHS employee forged a signature in order to take her child from her and terminate her parental rights. Only a person who’s reasonably certain she’s acting beyond scrutiny would do such a thing.

Public bodies veiled in secrecy, particularly those that are as strongly criticized as CPS, tend to adopt a bunker mentality that holds that everyone who tries to learn what’s going on within the agency becomes the enemy to be resisted at all costs. Agency insiders protect each other and the rest of us on the outside are deemed to be incapable of understanding the problems the agency deals with.

Child protective officials invariably claim secrecy is necessary for the well-being of children.

In an opposing view, Jackson County Youth Court Judge Sharon Sigalas said she feels an open system would only hurt children more.

“Children are hurt enough in the very beginning when they’re taken out of their home,” Sigalas said. “They’re already traumatized enough by being in foster care versus everybody they go to school with, they go to church with, their friends knowing what’s happened to them.”

I’ve never bought that line. The simple fact is that the overwhelming majority of kids taken from their parents will never have their cases written about in the papers. There are far too many of them and, for the most part, their cases aren’t considered newsworthy by the various news media. Plus, the idea that “everybody they go to school with, they go to church with, their friends knowing what’s happened to them” would come from the newspapers or television is absurd. All those people will figure out easily enough that little Andy or Jenny doesn’t live with his/her biological parents. Things like different names, different physical appearances, and a child’s sudden appearance in a new school will all be tip-offs. People are (a) curious and (b) not stupid enough to not grasp that a child is in foster care, particularly when certain adults in a community are known to be foster parents.

So Sigalas’ complaints are a red herring. Moreover, if we do want to keep kids’ names out of the news, we can simply do so. We can pass laws much like the rape shield law that simply forbids news outlets from reporting the names of kids in the child welfare system. It’s a point I’ve made many times before and so does the Sun Herald.

Another point I’ve raised is that CPS secrecy doesn’t protect the children it’s supposed to help, but only the adults working for the agency. Interestingly, several people advocating greater public scrutiny of Mississippi DHS think the same.

In neighboring Harrison County, Youth Court Judge Margaret Alfonso and her administrator, Cindy Alexander, are pushing for new legislation that will make the system more transparent.

“There’s just no accountability in the system, whatsoever,” Alfonso said. “On the abuse and neglect side, you don’t know if the Department of Human Services is doing their job. You don’t know if I’m doing my job. You don’t know what we’re doing.”

Hancock County Youth Court Judge Elise Deano has joined Alfonso in calling for reforms. Deano said the system’s secrecy has led to public distrust, making it difficult for youth courts to get necessary funding from county leaders, who, like the general public, know little or nothing about what goes on there.

“The very protection that is designed to keep the children safe is being used in a manner to damage the system, not help it,” Deano said. “All this secrecy is keeping me from getting the help I really need for these children.”

“By and large, (studies) have concluded that secrecy benefits adults, such as welfare officials and parents — not children,” Horne wrote.

“It has only protected the system in Hancock County,” Sheriff Adam said.

That’s about the size of it. Good for all those people for trying to open the system to the light of public scrutiny. And good for the Sun Herald for pitching in. In the long run, Mississippi’s kids will be better off if they succeed.

 

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