N.J. proposes limits on information in fatal child abuse cases

New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families would like to limit how much the public can know about children who die or face life-threatening injury due to abuse and neglect.

The pending regulation is designed to comply with revised federal guidelines recommending states share only “pertinent” reports of abuse or neglect from before the death or near-death incident.

The proposed rule in the April 15 issue of the New Jersey Registry said the change will further “protect the privacy rights and confidentiality” of vulnerable children and families.

But Assistant Director Mary Coogan of Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ), a nonprofit child welfare group, said the standard of pertinence relies on a subjective judgment that the department must make about its own investigations.

The problem, she said, is that the state has an incentive to withhold information.

“Because tragedies such as a child’s death cry out for somebody to be blamed,” said Coogan, “I think a state agency is hesitant to have a public conversation about what actions they took or did not take.”

“But this should not be about placing blame,” she added. “It should really be about looking at what was done or was not done, [so] we can correct those mistakes for the future.”

The Children Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, sometimes called CAPTA, requires states to develop processes for releasing information about neglect and abuse cases.

Since CAPTA does not set parameters for which information is relevant for release, the state’s Department of Children and Families is arguing it must take guidance from a different federal standard, the Child Welfare Policy Manual.

Last fall, the Obama administration amended the manual to specify that only information on pertinent investigations may be released to the public.

Citizens have until the end of business Friday to address comments on the new draft of the rule to the Office of Policy and Regulatory Development at the Department of Children and Families.

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