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Children's Voice Article, March/April 2003

No Comment

By Scott Kirkwood

A woman's voice comes over the police scanner, sending officers to a home where a young child has died, apparently at the hands of his own parents. Minutes later, three television stations and two newspapers send reporters to the site to investigate. The local child welfare agency learns about the child's death when a reporter calls, asking about the family's history, the identity of the deceased child, and the placement of the remaining children. Reviewing their files, agency administrators learn the child had been removed from the family months before, following allegations of abuse, and was returned to the home weeks later.

An agency's response at moments like these can have an incredible impact on public perception of the agency and its work in the community. But when issues of confidentiality arise, some feel like they're left to choose between breaking the law and issuing the most unsavory reply one can offer the media: "No comment."

Breaking the News

"As the public information coordinator for our agency, I'm constantly walking a tightrope between what information needs to be provided to the general public to satisfy their questions, and what the law says we can and cannot do," says Ann Stevens, Chief Information Officer for Montgomery County Children Services in Dayton, Ohio. "A typical case," she says, "is a house in deplorable condition discovered by police. There may be rodents, piles of clothes everywhere, exposed electrical wires that pose a health and safety risk to children…The police officer at the scene will usually talk to the media, and before long I'll get phone calls from reporters asking, 'How old are the children? Where are they being taken?'"

The 1996 amendments to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act prohibit child welfare agencies from breaching the confidentiality of the children they serve. Designed to protect children from the obvious implications of a publicized investigation, the federal standard replaced vastly differing state laws. But as public and private child welfare agencies have come under closer scrutiny, the media are demanding they divulge intimate details of very private matters.

"Confidentiality will come back to haunt you if you disclose nothing," Stevens says. "That gives the media and the general public the impression you're trying to hide things. As a government agency, we believe the public needs to be informed--they need to know that their neighbors are living in these kinds of conditions and that children are suffering, and you can't communicate that unless you provide some information."

Much of the information may already be available from police, who have no confidentiality restrictions, or from neighbors, who seem to divulge everything when a microphone and camera are thrust in their face. Stevens will usually provide basic details--whether the children were malnourished, physically harmed, or in need of hospitalization, and whether they're staying with relatives or in a foster home. The names of the children and their exact location are never revealed, and the media are generally forbidden from releasing images of the children.

John Saros, Executive Director of Franklin County Children's Services in Grove City, Ohio, outside Columbus, says, "The media are often quite convinced we are not really trying to protect the child's information but that we're trying to cover up our incompetence, so you really have to try to be as open as you can possibly be, but at the same time not give them too many details about the family."

Saros recommends focusing on the internal workings of the child welfare system when talking to reporters, rather than specific details of the case, or using hypothetical situations to explain the nuances of the work. "I like to educate them about the system as much as possible. If a child comes into our care, and reporters want to know all about the youngster, I'll start talking to them about how the intake process works. We'll explain the process of the investigation--we're going to talk to mom and dad and [anyone else involved], then put all that information into a report. If the child is going to remain in the parents' care, we'll do a risk-assessment, and we may enter into a safety plan with this family and so on."

Because turnover at newspapers is common, Saros points out that agencies might encounter reporters with little or no knowledge of child protective services. Many assume that if an agency goes to court to get an adjudication that a particular child has been abused, it's an indictment of the abuser, when, in fact, criminal prosecution is an entirely separate process. By discussing the process rather than the particulars, an agency's public information officer can protect a family's confidentiality while teaching the media about the larger issues involved in child abuse and neglect, putting the story in perspective.

But My Lawyer Says…

Some child protection agencies may balk when asked to discuss even the most basic details of any case, because their lawyers have repeatedly urged them not to speak to the media. Although that may be good advice in some cases, in others, putting up a brick wall may do irreversible damage to an agency's public image.

"When I make a decision about talking to a reporter, I use a lot of resources, and one of those may or may not be an attorney's interpretation of the law," says Judy Hay, Public Information Officer with Children's Protective Services (CPS) in Harris County (Houston), Texas. " I think CEOs and public information officers often make the mistake of abdicating their responsibility and giving it to an attorney. It's the attorney's job to give us their interpretation of the law, but our decision may be based on something else."

If Hay decides it's important for a reporter to learn more details of a case, she'll first see if other public entities are involved; for instance, the district attorney and police may be able to legally provide information she can't. Many court proceedings are open to the public, too, so there's nothing to say a public information officer can't let a reporter know about an upcoming hearing, then provide an explanation of the events afterwards.

"If you don't answer the media's questions and clarify what they've heard, I guarantee somebody will--most often the police," Hay says. "And then the public will only hear about this case via police language, which is by nature a punitive system, rather than the language of child protective services, which focus more on risk assessment and protection." Once reporters have heard the details of the case from a criminal viewpoint, agency personnel may need to clarify why certain conditions dictate whether a parent loses custody of a child.

There are no records of an individual or agency being prosecuted for a breach of client confidentiality, but some clients have considered filing civil suits against the workers involved, and employees have been fired for violating their agencies' policies. And it's quite possible that publicized comments surrounding a civil case could create problems in prosecuting a criminal case. But even when an agency truly cannot divulge any information without breaking the law, it's still better to give reporters specific reasons why that information must remain confidential.

"I try not to use that word, confidential," Hay says. "Instead, I'll say, 'The district attorney is discussing this case with the police and considering an arrest, so they've asked that I not share the details of the civil case with you,' or 'I talked to the judge, and she asked that I not talk about this case--here's her number.' So I've said the same thing, but I've given them a concrete reason, and I've helped direct the reporter to more information. It takes a little more energy than a blanket 'It's confidential,' but…if I can find a way the law applies to this case and give them that example, reporters will learn to trust me, because there's a good chance everyone else who quoted that confidentiality law [to the reporter] was hiding something."

The Public's Right to Know

With the rise in security since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Americans have had to balance the interests of public safety with the need for privacy. Airport security personnel may comb through our personal belongings in front of dozens of passengers. The use of widespread security cameras and high-tech identification systems has made the leap from science fiction to reality. In this environment, where no one is above suspicion, everyone wants to know that child welfare agencies are doing their best, but is such transparency in the best interest of children?

"When taxpayers are funding public agencies, the government should be accountable to them, to tell them what they're doing and how well they're doing it," says Linda Spears, Associate Vice President for CWLA Program Operations. "That creates a potential conflict--the law says you can't share things, but the public feels like they have a right to know. By sharing information, agencies can help the public understand the work we do--it helps explain how complicated cases are, how difficult decisions are, and even why we may have made a bad decision or why we don't think we made a bad decision--so public agencies typically feel they should share as much information as possible."

On the other side of the coin, the public needs to know that confidentiality laws are in place for good reason. Just as doctors, lawyers, and psychotherapists are required to maintain the confidentiality of their clients, social workers must do the same to preserve the special nature of the relationship.

"If family members are opening up and giving us information that helps us provide services or structure a case plan, and they later find out that what they were telling us is printed on the front page of the local newspaper, that's going to harm our relationship with that family and ruin our ability to work with them," Saros says. And once word of an agency's willingness to speak with the media circulates, few families will be knocking on the front door requesting services.

Working with the Media

Public information officers stress the need to establish good media relations long before the high-profile cases arise. If an agency has established a rapport with a reporter, she'll know more about the agency's work, she'll trust the agency is telling the truth, and she'll listen to suggestions with an open mind rather than suspicion.

For instance, although the law says nothing about the media's right to publish a photo of an abused child, an agency with a good relationship with the media can be certain that requests of anonymity will be met by most newspapers and broadcasters. After all, reporters who risk alienating the agency will probably lose out the next time they request information from agency personnel.

Agencies of significant size should be careful to funnel all media inquiries through one individual to ensure the proper information is released to the public and that the message is consistent with the agency's policies and procedures. If caseworkers have to speak with the media, reporters may see only one facet of the work being done on behalf of the family, and the time needed to work with reporters would certainly affect the energy caseworkers can direct toward the families they serve.

Hay sometimes takes extreme steps to make sure reporters understand what the agency is up against. Though it's a rare arrangement, and one that requires an incredible amount of time and effort, Hay will occasionally allow a reporter to follow a caseworker for weeks, months, or, in the case of an HBO documentary, even years, to better understand the agency's work and the life of its clients. Before doing so, the agency must secure the permission of clients, and even introduce reporters to judges, hospital personnel, police, and others. The task is daunting, but Hay has yet to see a reporter emerge from the world of child welfare without a solid grasp of the field--and that almost always leads to a sympathetic written or broadcast piece.

Of course, the more an agency educates the media, the more that education will be passed on to the public. A few years ago, the public children's services association in Ohio arranged for a focus group to discuss what people knew about the work of children's services, so agencies would have a better idea of misconceptions in the community. And shortly after a meeting of the American Bar Association brought together lawyers, judges, police, and editors for a discussion of confidentiality issues, one district court judge established a tradition of regular group meetings to discuss issues of confidentiality from each perspective. Although they don't always agree on some of the more complicated issues, those who attend the meetings have earned respect for one another, and that makes it easier for them to go about their jobs.

"Fortunately, agency public relations really seem to be improving," says Caren Kaplan, CWLA's Child Protection Program Manager. "Much of that is due to a professionalization of communications, ensuring that the people who deal with the media are appropriately trained so they know what they can and cannot say, and they say it in a way that is palatable for the public and protects the families at the same time. The ability to tell the story says so much about your the possibility of garnering public support for our issues, and that's a vital part of the work we do."

When the Agency Is on Trial

The conflict between an agency's duty as service provider and its duty to public accountability is magnified when the media are investigating a case that involves poor decisions or outright mistakes made by the agency. If a child is harmed while in the custody of the agency, the camera lights will shine a little harsher on the public information officer, and the refuge of confidentiality may seem even more inviting, but the need to be open becomes even more important. When an agency is under investigation, information concerning the family should be kept under wraps, but the agency's actions shouldn't be.

"Seven years ago, in my first month on the job, a young man in one of our institutions hung himself," says Elmer Bailey, Executive Director of Harris County Juvenile Probation Department in Houston. "Everyone in the world did an investigation, and we called a press conference, gathered all the information, and explained to the public that it was a terrible problem. But we had researched our procedures, and we had no reason to believe this child would hurt himself."

In spite of the agency's high level of care, the young man had found a way to insert the edge of a sheet around the flange of a sprinkler identified as suicide-proof, and he was able to jump off the bed and hang himself. The investigation found that the county wasn't liable, but the sprinkler manufacturer eventually settled with the parents out of court.

"Our approach was to immediately stand up in front of the camera say, 'A terrible thing has happened,'" Bailey says. "There was one story in the newspaper, and it never came up again. It took a lot of the fire out of it when I stood up and said how badly we felt about it, that we could find nothing we could have done that would have prevented it, but we were going to review our policies and retrain our people now that we had this heightened sense of urgency. The media heard that, asked all the questions they could think of, wrote the story, and it went away."

Even in the rare and unfortunate event that an agency is responsible for an injury or death to a child in its care, every public information specialist says the best option is to be as honest and open as possible. "People understand when you make a mistake," Bailey says. "They never understand if you lie to them, mislead them, or refuse to be up-front and honest. The people pay your salary, and you just don't have the prerogative to be secretive."

"The hardest cases I've had are when a child dies from some sort of abuse and we've had some contact with that child and we're not able to protect him," says Judy Hay from Harris County CPS. "No matter what I say to the media, the reality is we've lost a child. If I think the agency could have done something to protect the child, I'll say that to the reporter, because when you do make a mistake you've got to admit it."

Public relations consultant Clarence Jones says that when an agency has to reveal some information about a potential mistake, it's best to reveal all the details at once. If information is allowed to trickle out slowly, it will feed on itself. Like recent cases in Florida and Alexandria, Virginia, grisly stories involving widespread mistakes attract increasing media scrutiny as they unfold.

"One of my 10 commandments when dealing with the media is when you're at fault, dump all the information, and don't hold back," Jones says. "There simply won't be enough space or time in tomorrow's newspaper or broadcast to report all you have dumped, and the story will often die after 24 hours. When the information leaks out over weeks or months, that's where the real damage is done. It's not the first story or even the second--it's the cumulative effect of story after story after story."

Too often, Jones says, an organization assumes the media has discovered only one of its shortcomings, and its leaders will hunker down and hope to avoid further exposure. But he warns that in a large bureaucracy there will almost always be one dissatisfied employee willing to provide the media with another bit of incriminating information, or even a well-meaning employee who believes speaking with the media is the only way to bring change to a struggling agency. That's why it's best to come clean, admit the errors, and put the story to rest, he says.

Of course, after admitting mistakes, it's important to take the next step--addressing the reasons they happened in the first place. A private agency may hire an outside investigator; a public agency may even be required to allow a government panel to look into the matter and make recommendations. By simply letting the public know the problem is being addressed, an agency will go a long way toward earning forgiveness.

Scott Kirkwood is Managing Editor of Children's Voice.

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