Va. Girl's Death Highlights Discord Over Releasing Abuse Data
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
When a letter from Prince William County's Department of Social Services arrived in the mail recently, Wes Byers was hoping for answers.
He wanted to know why -- despite a report he made in December that a 13-year-old girl in his neighborhood appeared to have been abused -- officials failed to rescue her before she was slain the next month.
But the letter, five sentences long, didn't shed any light on Alexis "Lexie" Agyepong-Glover's case. It said Byers's report had been investigated and that "appropriate actions" were taken, but it did not elaborate.
"I can't tell you how upsetting it is to me," Byers said. "These folks are like, 'Well, it's just another day at work.' . . . We've got a life that has passed."
The slow trickle of information to emerge about Lexie's death, and how local agencies handled her case while she was alive, highlights the secrecy that often surrounds child abuse cases, child welfare advocates said. Because of confidentiality rules that vary across the states, records related to cases involving juveniles are sometimes withheld even after a criminal investigation is complete.
If information is eventually released, it is often heavily redacted, preventing proper scrutiny of public agencies charged with protecting children, child advocates said.
Some say a federal law requires the release of records in abuse-related child deaths or near-deaths and that it should be made even stronger before it is reauthorized during this session of the U.S. Congress. State and local officials in Virginia, however, say disclosure is optional in such cases. They argue that privacy rules are necessary even after a child is dead to protect victims and reporters of abuse.
"Fifty-one different jurisdictions interpret [federal law] 51 different ways," said Elisa Weichel, administrative director and staff attorney with the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law. "When it reaches the point that a child incurs this kind of serious injury or death . . . the public's right to know about what's going on in these cases trumps the privacy rights of those involved."
It is unclear how much information officials will release to the public in Lexie's case. A criminal investigation into the actions of her adoptive mother, Alfreedia Gregg-Glover -- charged in her abuse and death -- is ongoing, and her trial is set for July.
"We don't want to scare away people from adopting children," said Prince William Social Services Director John P. Ledden Jr. "We also don't want to give the public the perception that we're hiding and covering up something."
Since Lexie was found dead in a Woodbridge area creek Jan. 9, several investigations have been launched.
County social services officials have completed probes into past abuse allegations, but the county attorney's office declined to release to The Washington Post nearly 400 pages of records pertaining to Lexie's case, citing the pending criminal trial. Assistant County Attorney Bobbi Jo Alexis said that it was too early to say whether any of the records would be made public after Gregg-Glover's trial.