Assembly votes to require public reporting on child deaths
STATE HOUSE – On the final day of the 2016 legislative session, lawmakers approved a measure sponsored by Sen. Cynthia Coyne and Rep. Deborah Ruggiero requiring the Department of Children, Youth and Families to swiftly and publicly report the death or near-fatality of any child in state care.
The legislation (2016-S 2717Aaa, 2016-H 8069A), now headed to the governor, is meant to better protect children in Rhode Island by increasing accountability and to ensure that the state is responding with all appropriate resources and urgency when such a serious incident occurs.
“Anytime a child dies or is seriously injured while in the care of the state, there are serious questions that need to be answered. Without a clear process that is open to scrutiny, it’s hard to say whether our system of care is properly protecting children or whether these incidents are the result of situations that could have been avoided. Policymakers, advocates and the public need to know if and when the system is failing to protect children so we can identify changes that must be made to truly provide safety and care to children who have already endured so much,” said Senator Coyne (D-Dist. 32, Barrington, Bristol, East Providence), who noted that the Senate’s efforts to provide oversight to DCYF in recent years informed much of the bill’s development.
Said Representative Ruggiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown. “Every child’s life is important. The death of a child, particularly a child whom the state has already placed in a foster home for his or her protection, is always a very grave and concerning situation that demands investigation and response. DCYF is already required to investigate these cases, but it is not required to issue any public report about what it learns in that investigation. There must be public disclosure to ensure accountability and to identify the cracks in the system so they can be strengthened to protect all vulnerable children.”
The legislation was filed earlier this year in response to deaths of two children in unlicensed foster homes, and was amended after the state’s child advocate noted a lack of communication about the death of children in state care.
The bill makes it clear that when a fatality or near-fatality is confirmed, DCYF must notify the public within 48 hours with general information that doesn’t personally identify the child or interfere with any potential criminal investigation. It requires that when DCYF substantiates that the incident was the result of abuse or neglect, it must also notify the state child advocate and provide her with access to all written material on the case. DCYF must also share the results of its investigation with the child advocate within five days of its completion, and may share it with any relevant law enforcement agencies and partners as necessary, in accordance with federal restrictions.
The bill also makes clear that the child advocate shall investigate every child fatality or near fatality of any child in state care, up to age 21, reported to her by DCYF. Current law makes such investigations optional. In each case, the child advocate shall form a child fatality review panel to review the matter. Recommendations from these investigations will be made public.
The bill’s sponsors say they believe the more specific requirements in the bill will ensure that every single case is given the scrutiny it deserves, and that the public examination results in policy changes that better protect the safety of children in the future.
Cosponsors of the legislation include Sen. Elizabeth A. Crowley (D-Dist. 16, Central Falls, Pawtucket), Sen. Stephen R. Archambault (D-Dist. 22, Smithfield, North Providence, Johnston), Sen. Gayle L. Goldin (D-Dist. 3, Providence), Sen. William J. Conley Jr. (D-Dist. 18, East Providence, Pawtucket), Rep. Joseph M. McNamara (D-Dist. 19, Warwick, Cranston), Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-Dist. 34, South Kingstown, Narragansett), Rep. Lauren H. Carson (D-Dist. 75, Newport) and Rep. Daniel P. McKiernan (D-Dist. 7, Providence).
For more information, contact:
Meredyth R. Whitty, Publicist
State House Room 20
Providence, RI 02903