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State releases records for child who died in foster care

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    NMU         MISSOURI         Freedom of Information    

State releases records for child who died in foster care

  • Relying on a 2-year-old law, the Springfield News-Leader won access to a child’s records held by the agency charged with his care.

April 21, 2003 — After a six-month court battle, the Springfield News-Leader won a lawsuit against the Division of Family Services to obtain the complete records of 2-year-old Dominic James, who died while in foster care.

The April 14 ruling by Greene County Circuit Judge Miles Sweeney was based on a law, passed in 2000, allowing information to be released when a child dies or is seriously injured. The law gives the director of the Department of Social Services discretion to release information after reviewing whether siblings would be affected by it. The law, which calls for public disclosure when a child dies, was passed after a Kansas City mother was convicted of starving her two children to death.

Dominic did not have any siblings at the home who would be adversely affected by release of his records. Yet after his death Aug. 21, DFS officials said privacy laws prevented them from releasing any information.

The Springfield News-Leader sought records from the time Dominic went into foster custody until his death. In September 2002, the newspaper sued the Department of Social Services, which oversees DFS, under the Missouri Sunshine Law.

Under the ruling, DFS must release 800 pages of records including DFS files, caseworkers’ notes, some medical records and records relating to the investigation of hotline calls.

“We are excited that we as an institution are able to effect change in the state,” said David Ledford, executive editor of the Springfield News-Leader. “It was a long fight, and expensive, and essentially is going to change the way the public receives public documents henceforth on a child who dies under the state protective custody.”

Ledford said that once the reporter on the story started digging up information, she found that the Department of Social Services had been intentionally lying to her and was covering up reports about children in the state.

Dominic died three days after being admitted into the hospital with seizures. The hospital’s report to the state indicated possible child abuse. Dominic’s foster father, John “Wesley” Dilley of Willard, Mo., has been charged with second-degree murder.

Ledford said that Dominic essentially died of shaken baby syndrome.

“One thing I’m so proud of is that our lawsuit is going to shine light on an agency that before was shrouded in darkness,” Ledford said.

(Gannett Missouri Publishing Inc, DBA Springfield News-Leader v. Missouri Division of Family Services; Media counsel: Bryan Wade, Husch and Eppenberger, Springfield, Mo.) AT

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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