Mary Sanchez: Hiding records doesn’t help abused children

04/29/2013 12:00 AM

04/26/2013 5:18 PM

Last summer, Kansas Citians were horrified when a little girl was found starving, locked in a closet, barely surviving amid her own feces.

The 10-year-old had lived that way for quite some time. Her weight had dropped to a mere 32 pounds.

The No. 1 question then was, “How could such a tragedy happen?”

We still don’t know.

And it’s becoming increasing suspicious why the information has been withheld. Despite repeated requests, phone calls, letters and now pressure by state legislators, officials stall.

Missouri Department of Social Services workers had intervened on other cases of maltreatment of the same little girl years earlier. Eventually she had been returned to her mother, who is now charged in the case.

On April 19, area reporters and this columnist received an e-mail saying records on the little girl known as LP would be released, someday.

Neat trick. Send a cryptic e-mail at 4:47 p.m. on a Friday about records requested 10 months earlier, then have assistants insist that workers are gone until Monday.

That Monday came and went. Phone calls and e-mails weren’t returned. That’s a pattern that has developed since LP was discovered, to mention just one case.

Only after being further hounded did officials speak the next day. They said another month was needed to decide about disclosing the records on a 4-year-old boy who was allegedly kicked to death by his stepmother in Clinton County. Lucas Barnes Webb died in October 2012.

Where is the governor? Jay Nixon’s office has been pawning responsibility back to the Department of Social Services.

That office is shrinking behind a 2000 law designed to protect children from such bureaucratic roadblocks to the truth.

When a child dies or is a near fatality, records can be released at the discretion of the director of the Department of Social Services. But there doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason to how those decisions are made. Until the case of LP, some records had been released in a timely manner.

The law wasn’t put in place to hide mistakes or escape scrutiny. It’s there to help children.

There are, no doubt, heroes within these files. Caseworkers and others who tried to alert authorities, to help troubled families. It might be that nothing more could have been done. Or, that one simple policy change could have made a difference.

Agency reluctance has led to heated conversations about the necessity of transparency in government.

Here is why: Babies, toddlers and elementary-age children have been burned, drowned, and had their throats slashed and tiny frames shaken so hard that their organs shifted and bones snapped.

These children – some of them known only for how they died – deserve better.

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