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California Considers Law That Could Keep Child Death Records Secret

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Gabriel Fernandez (Photo via Facebook)
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In 2008, California passed a law that allowed reporters to have access to social worker case notes and other files. Those came in handy in the case of Gabriel Fernandez, an 8-year-old in Palmdale who was basically tortured to death by his mom and her boyfriend. Case worker files revealed an extra layer of tragedy in his death: county social workers missed red flags that could have saved Fernandez. This information led to social workers losing their jobs and reforms at the county level aimed at preventing another case like Fernandez's.

Now the California Department of Social Services has drafted a bill that would make it harder for the public to get information about specific cases like Fernandez's. The Los Angeles Times got their hands on a draft of the bill, which they describe this way:

But the bill currently under consideration would relax deadlines for the release of records, and keep the names of social workers secret. It would deny the public access to original case notes, instead providing abbreviated summaries of how the government attempted to protect vulnerable children. It would also exclude the public from reviewing case files concerning children who were killed by their parents' boyfriends or girlfriends.

Although the siblings of children who died of abuse or neglect are already able to object to having information about them released, the new bill allows for the lawyers of children indirectly involved in the case to object as well.

There is one aspect of the bill that seems child-friendly, which is a federal mandate to release records in cases where children nearly die. But child advocate groups aren't happy to hear about this bill, which hasn't yet been publicly introduced.

Bill Grimm, a senior attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, who lobbied for the landmark 2008 law, was particularly disturbed by this bill that would allow government agencies to offer up their own summaries of what happened. He told the Times, "What we fought for was the production of the actual documents and not ... the county's version of what happened."