Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert told a leg-slative subcommittee today that there have been several unnecessary child abuse deaths in the county, deaths that could have been avoided had social services files been open to county investigators.
Following the hearing, the Senate subcommittee on Social Service and Welfare unanimously approved a bill requiring social service departments across the state to disclose to commonwealth's attorneys partial records of child abuse when abuse reaches the felony level.
The proposed bill, which now goes to the full committee, is aimed at settling a two-year long conflict between the Social Service Board of Prince William County, which claims such records are confidental, and Ebert, who says they are indispensible to investigations of child abuse.
The bill specifically eliminates confidentiality restraints pertaining to child abuse cases that reach the felony level.
Social service representatives said they oppose the bill because they fear people would think of the department "as an arm of the police" and would be reluctant to confide in social workers. Preserving family unity rather than punishing the wrongdoer is the department's priority, they testified.
That conflict is unique to Prince William County, Assistant Attorney General John Rupp told the subcommittee.
Several senators reacted emotionally to the situation. "I'm reading a perfect horror story. Somewhere you folks have to stop playing God and give these children some help," said Sen. J. Lewis Rawls Jr. of Suffolk. He was directing his comments to Ricardo Perez, the county's director of social services, after Rawls had read to the subcommittee a case history of a child who allegedly had been beaten to death despite six reports to social service about prior beatings.
Rawls said that the child had required hospital care twice for head injuries, and was removed from his parents' custody only to be returned by court order.
The controversy in Prince William County has been smoldering for years, but it was the death of two-year-old Rodney Williams, which led Sen. Charles Colgan of Prince William to seek amendment of the state's laws. Williamson was found beaten to death in his Manassas home after repeated warnings of abuse.
The problem among the agencies is so severe that Perez has brought suit against Ebert asking the court to enjoin the commonwealth's attorney from seeking search warrants against social service records.
On four separate occasions Ebert has gotten search warrants from county magistrates to seize social service records concerning child abuse cases.
Prince William County Attorney Terry Emerson said he advised the social service department that its records are confidential under Virginia's Privacy Protection Act and Department of Welfare regulations.
But Assistant Attorney General Rupp said that "common sense" dictates that such records be made available to the commonwealth's attorney for investigations and said he supports the proposed amendment.
At least two senators, Colgan and Rawls, say the proposed amendment does not go far enough because it only requires social service to turn over records relating to specific felonies, not general backgrounds or patterns of abuse.