Child Welfare and Privacy

AS investigations continue into the recent death of a six-year-old New York City girl, Elisa Izquierdo, social workers, children's advocates, public officials, and others are still asking the same questions: How could this have happened, what's wrong with the system, and can it be fixed?

Elisa's case is not an isolated one. Fifty-seven other children in New York have died this year as the result of neglect or physical abuse. Statistics in other big cities tell a similar story. What is disturbing is that Elisa, whose mother is charged with the killing, was no stranger to the child-welfare system. Teachers, relatives, and others reported evidence of abuse. Tragically, there were those, too, who might have helped but were afraid to get involved.

In this case, as in others around the country, one reaction is to point fingers - and the first target is the often overworked, undertrained caseworker. But that's too easy. Fortunately, New York City officials are trying to dig deeper. Unfortunately, they are hindered by overly stringent state confidentiality laws.

The intent of these laws is commendable: to shield abused children from the glare of the public eye, to protect parents or guardians who might be falsely accused, and to ensure privacy to those who report abuse. But as New York is finding out, they also can be inflexible, with the result that child-protection agencies appear to be protecting only themselves.

Confidentiality laws aren't responsible for Elisa's death, but neither should they get in the way of an investigation that may help prevent similar tragedies in the future. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took the right step in asking a special committee to find a better balance between safeguarding privacy and allowing for fuller investigations when cases are mishandled.

The task New York and others face has never been more difficult. It's impossible to cut millions of dollars for child welfare out of federal, state, and local budgets without causing extensive rethinking. Yet high-profile cases such as Elisa's can build momentum for changes that should have been made earlier - and new confidentiality laws should be the first small step.

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