WHEN Awilda Lopez was arrested and charged with killing her daughter, Elisa Izquierdo, in November, New Yorkers and others reacted with horror. Part of their horror stemmed from the fact that the city's Child Welfare Administration should have been well aware of Elisa's abusive home situation.
But just how informed was the agency? Nobody knows. Why did numerous reports of suspected abuse go unheeded? Nobody knows. What did a caseworker's sporadic visits to the home reveal? Nobody knows.
Nobody knows because Section 422 of the State Social Services Department prohibits public disclosure of information about child-abuse cases. Like similar laws in other states, Section 422 was designed to encourage reports of child abuse and protect the privacy of those involved. That's important. But contrary to its intent, the law mainly insulates welfare administrators from scrutiny.
Fortunately, that may soon change. Last week Mayor Rudolph Giuliani pulled the Child Welfare Agency out of New York City's welfare bureaucracy and created a new department under a separate commissioner. It is an important first step in giving more prominence to the issue of abused children. Also significant, ''Elisa's Law,'' a bill that would authorize government officials to disclose information about abused children, is moving swiftly through New York State's legislature. Congress and states such as Connecticut and New Jersey have moved in the same direction.
Greater disclosure is by no means a panacea, and protecting the privacy of those who report suspected abuse should remain a priority. But knowing what happened in cases such as Elisa's is imperative if improvements are to be made. Amending confidentiality laws also allows welfare officials the chance to answer unfair charges. As one social-services worker said, the public should know what's right with the system as well as what's wrong.