KANSAS CITY — The Missouri House speaker has warned Gov. Jay Nixon that if he fails to order the release of records in recent child tragedies, the legislature will take action.
The Kansas City Star reported that Republican Rep. Tim Jones of Eureka called Wednesday for the state's child welfare system to resume releasing records after children have died or been seriously injured by abuse or neglect. He said that releasing information is the only way to improve the system.
His comments came less than a month after the Star and the Springfield News-Leader in a joint newspaper investigation reported that years of openness ended in June after a 10-year-old girl was freed from a Kansas City closet weighing 32 pounds.
Court records show the girl had been hospitalized as a 4-year-old because she was underweight at 26 pounds. Afterward, the girl and a younger sibling were taken from their mother. Soon after the mother regained custody, the elder girl stopped attending school and dropped out of sight.
The Star has sought more details, but department officials have declined to discuss the case or provide information about five other children who died in the months that followed. Those five children came from Springfield, Willard, Eagleville and Holt.
The newspaper analysis shows that in 16 of 18 previous child welfare cases dating back to 2009, the state released information sought by the media. It kept the other two requests under consideration.
"It is deeply troubling that the Missouri Department of Social Services has made a pronounced shift away from accountability and openness when it comes to cases dealing with the death or near-death of innocent Missouri children," Jones wrote in an email to the Kansas City Star.
The disclosure law on the books, passed in 2000 after the torture and starvation deaths of two Kansas City boys, allows the DSS to release records following a child fatality or near fatality. But that disclosure comes at the discretion of the agency's director, who must first review whether the information could harm siblings.
Nixon said Tuesday that he was not aware of "any significant policy changes" regarding disclosure of child welfare records and referred questions to his staff. Nixon's spokesman, Scott Holste, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the office would have no further comment.
Joe Maxwell, the former lieutenant governor and senator who co-wrote the law, said that while some cases may have circumstances in which information shouldn't be released, the recent trend of not releasing anything may go too far.
"I can't think of a way in which circumstances would be such that every case since June of last year had those qualities for which the director would think, 'I can't release this,' " Maxwell said Wednesday. "If there are not these types of circumstances, then the spirit of the law is clearly not being followed since June of last year."