Privacy Policy Hides Incompetence

Jade Moon
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Wednesday - August 08, 2007
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I was glad when Department of Human Services director Lillian Koller said she was releasing some records detailing the horrific case of the starving 12-year-old girl. The only justice that can be done for this child is the possibility that the system can be improved.

But a few days later it became apparent my optimism was premature. Koller said she would not be releasing the documents after all. No word on who made the decision or why.

The records in question are from 2000 - the first time the girl came to the attention of the state. Back then neighbors said they thought Denise and Melvin Wright were abusing their then-5-year-old girl. The reportedly emaciated child was removed from the home, but returned within 72 hours. That’s the last anyone heard of her until she was taken again from her parents earlier this year. She is now 12 years old. When they found her she weighed 50 pounds.

There is finger pointing aplenty and deservedly so. This girl should have been rescued. She should have been kept out of her parents’cruel hands back in 2000, when neighbors did the right thing by reporting the abuse. They heard her screaming like an animal in pain. They wanted to help her. And yet their efforts failed. I put that failure squarely on whoever gave her back to her torturers a scant three days after taking her away.

And there were other opportunities to save her. Relatives saw her condition last year. And it must have been pretty bad because they said they tried to help by bringing food and urging the parents to seek help. But these relatives dropped the ball.

They did not report what they saw and the little girl suffered for another full year. One year when she could have lived in safety. One year during which she could have been nursed back to health - 364 days when she could have found shelter in the protective arms of people who cared. Instead she languished for weeks and months, alone. No one saw her pain.

When we talk about priorities in this state we seldom bring up child abuse unless the issue is front and center in the news. After the initial shock and the water cooler talk we go back to our lives as if nothing had happened.

One of the problems is and always has been the silence surrounding child abuse. I understand that state workers are overworked, and I know they care. But there is something wrong with a system that doesn’t allow us to know what’s going on and won’t allow us to find out just how many kids are falling through the cracks.

They say the child’s privacy is paramount.

I say that’s a crock.

It’s way too easy to hide incompetence and mistakes behind the veil of policy. How can we improve the system or hold people accountable if we can’t scrutinize and analyze the failures? There can be no real way to ensure safeguards if we don’t know what we’re talking about.

As a reporter I knocked against that door many times. Always, the response from the people in charge was the same. No information allowed. The privacy of the child is at stake.

Well, a lot more is at stake than the privacy of children. How about their lives? Who speaks for children if not an entire community? Who speaks for Peter Boy and Reubyne and a Big Island girl found with maggots in her face?

And who will speak for a starving little girl, the daughter of Denise and Melvin Wright? I wonder when she stopped screaming, when she stopped crying, and just gave up?

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