Confidentiality Laws: Protections For Kids or Cloak of Secrecy For Agencies?

May 2010 / Abell Reports / Criminal Justice and Addiction

Privacy vs. the public’s interest in knowing about children at risk and in trouble.

The public has a strong interest in learning about who commits violent crimes in the community and how children can die after the authorities have been warned about danger from family members. How public agencies and the courts handled particular cases, whether standard practices were followed, and whether official policies put the public or individual children at risk, are all important issues, potentially matters of
life and death. The media, as the eyes and ears of the public, want to learn what happened before, during, and after these tragedies.

At the same time, confidentiality has been a hallmark of the juvenile justice system since its creation more than a century ago, as a means of ensuring that children are not stigmatized by court proceedings and not punished throughout their lives for misdeeds they committed when they were young.

Similarly, in child abuse cases, confidentiality is necessary for investigators to obtain relevant information from family members, witnesses, and those reporting the alleged abuse. Consequently, child abuse and child welfare records are also guarded with legal protections.

In addition, although confidentiality laws prohibit the disclosure of DJS and DSS records, there can be real benefits to public agencies sharing information about children under their jurisdiction. For example, for youth in trouble with the law and in need of rehabilitation, information from other agencies can be helpful to the Department of Juvenile Services in developing treatment plans. Or if a child is alleged to be delinquent and also neglected or abused by his caregivers, information-sharing between DJS and DSS can reduce duplication of efforts and help both agencies work more effectively.

These various interests in confidential information—interests of the public, of children and families, and of the agencies responsible for caring for them—raise important questions for public policy and agency accountability. How much do confidentiality laws protect information about children in the custody of public agencies? Do agency officials hide behind confidentiality laws when delinquent youth commit serious crimes, or when parents kill their child after DSS receives warnings about potential dangers but does not remove the child from the home? Can agencies share information effectively to provide better services to children and families? Are reforms needed?

To sort out these issues and answer these questions, we reviewed the relevant federal and Maryland state statutes, advice on the issues by the Maryland State Attorney General’s office, and relevant court decisions. We looked at statutes in other states and the legal and policy literature on confidentiality and information-sharing, including materials published by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services. We also interviewed agency secretaries; chiefs of staff; public information officers; assistant attorneys general assigned to work with the agencies; and other personnel in Baltimore City and Maryland state agencies, including the Juvenile Court, State’s Attorney’s Office, Office of the Public Defender, Baltimore City Department of Social Services, Office of the Mayor in Baltimore, the Maryland
Department of Juvenile Services, Department of Human Resources (the umbrella agency for the local departments of social services), Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and the StateStat program in the Office of the Governor, as well as independent advocates for children and youth.