HELENA – Montana child welfare officials have reiterated their position that state law prohibits disclosure of information about child abuse deaths despite a warning from the federal government that continued secrecy could jeopardize grant money.
Officials at Montana's Department of Public Health and Human Services say a state confidentiality law blocks them from releasing details about children who die at their caregivers' hands, but said they will urge state lawmakers to pass a law bringing the state into compliance in 2017.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told Montana officials last month that the state would lose a child abuse prevention grant if they did not start releasing the information or explain why they do not have to. Federal rules require transparency in cases where a child dies from abuse or neglect.
The Montana agency acknowledged in a plan submitted Monday that public awareness about child abuse deaths is needed to "bring systemic changes to improve the safety of children," but blamed the state legislature for failing to pass a bill to change the current confidentiality law.
Special assistant attorney general Mark Prichard said Montana has "no exception that would allow public disclosure" of information about children who die from abuse or neglect.
HHS is reviewing the response and whether its annual $120,000 grant will be continued awaiting action by the Montana legislature when it next meets in January 2017.
Montana's plan says the agency will try to get legislators to pass a bill to bring the state into compliance, such as educating lawmakers about the consequences of failing to pass legislation that would remove blanket confidentiality.
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In the legislative session that ended earlier this year, the Montana agency proposed a bill that would have created a child abuse and neglect review commission for cases involving deaths and near deaths, and would have allowed for information sharing. The House Judiciary Committee passed it 18-2 after the first reading on Feb. 4, then tabled it 10-11 with no discussion.
Child and Family Services Administrator Sarah Corbally testified that the bill was meant to prevent future child abuse deaths by comprehensively reviewing such cases and allowing a commission to identify system failures and provide recommendations. She said the commission would be grant funded, but did not say how much grant money was involved. She also didn't tell lawmakers that the agency had been informed at the end of the previous legislative session that it could lose the grant if it did not meet the disclosure requirements.
An eight-month investigation by the Associated Press into child abuse deaths nationwide found that the state has routinely kept details of such cases secret, even when they involved children killed while the agency had reason to know they were in danger. The AP learned of a Montana case that it focused on by reviewing documents in the criminal court case against Matthew Blaz, the father of 2-month-old victim Mattisyn Blaz, whom prosecutors said had been spiked "like a football." The father was sentenced in November to life in prison without parole.
In its investigation, the AP found that at least 786 children died of abuse or neglect in the U.S. in a six-year span while in plain view of child protection officials.
Garance Burke contributed to this report from San Francisco. Mohr reported from Jackson, Mississippi.