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Why are Renee Bowman's adoptions still cloaked in secrecy?

Friday, March 26, 2010; A24

AS HE SENTENCED Renee Bowman to life in prison for murdering two daughters she adopted, a Montgomery County Circuit judge wondered how this woman was ever judged to be a fit parent. It's a good question, but one that may never be answered fully because secrecy shrouds the government's handling of child adoption and welfare cases. Until there is more transparency, mistakes can be easily hidden and lessons will go unlearned.

Judge Michael Algeo nearly broke down as he addressed the 44-year-old woman, telling her that he's never dealt with such horror. Ms. Bowman adopted three girls and, according to court testimony, systematically abused and terrorized them. Two girls -- Minnet, who would have been 12 now, and Jasmine, who would have been 11 -- were killed and stuffed in a freezer. Only when their sister, now 9, escaped were the bodies discovered in September 2008 in Ms. Bowman's Southern Maryland home. It's unclear when the girls were killed, but an autopsy showed they died of asphyxiation. The adoptions, in 2001 and 2004, were handled through the District of Columbia's child welfare agency, which continued to pay Ms. Bowman a stipend for their care even as their bodies were hidden in ice.

'The court certainly questions how that [the adoptions] could have been done, but it was done. And I'm not going to go behind that," said the judge. Indeed, as Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform pointed out, the judge really couldn't delve further because of the strict privacy laws that govern child welfare cases and family court proceedings in the District and Maryland.

According to sources familiar with the case, Ms. Bowman was subject to a rigorous review process when she first became a foster parent to one of the girls in 1997. She was employed, owned her own home, was given high marks by friends and co-workers, and had undergone the required training. But should authorities have picked up on the warning signs when, for instance, she filed for bankruptcy or was convicted in 1999 of threatening to harm an elderly motorist? What about when Maryland's social services agency got a complaint of neglect and found it to be unfounded?

Officials in both the District and Maryland say they have reviewed procedures and tightened policies, such as requiring parents who receive subsidies to provide evidence that children are in school or have been immunized. It is possible that this case was appropriately handled, that the awful spiral of events began after Ms. Bowman adopted the children and that nothing could have stopped the evil. Too bad the public will never know for sure.

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