Bill sealing Indiana child abuse death case records moves forward

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INDIANAPOLIS (WPTA21) — A bill that would seal child services records for years in cases where children die from abuse or neglect is advancing through the Indiana Statehouse.

Senate Bill 551 passed through committee this week.

The bill seeks to reverse an Indiana law in place since 2000. That law requires the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) to hand over its records to the public for the state’s most severe cases of child abuse. The point? To shed light on any potential problems in the child welfare system in an effort to prevent the system from failing more children.

But that could all change under SB 551.

An eleventh-hour amendment in the bill adopted in committee aims to block public access to DCS records as long as a criminal investigation is underway.

READ MORE: Bill could keep child abuse information and state’s response to it hidden

Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, says he has “major concerns about the language in the bill.”

It can take years for child abuse case to make its way through the court system – years Key says are lost when it comes to holding child services accountable, and inspiring witnesses of abuse to speak out.

“Just the fact that that story was written or published may actually wind up saving another child’s life,” said Key in phone interview Thursday. “Because someone may have reacted to what they saw in the story and they took action.”

Key has been in talks with the author of the original bill, State Sen. Mark Messmer (R – Jasper), in an effort to rephrase the amendment. Key has also reached out to Dave Powell, who first suggested the amendment to the bill.

Powell, the executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, is pushing for the last-minute amendment to the bill – pointing to two high-profile child abuse cases in Allen County as ammunition.

One of those cases involved the trial against the biological mother of Malakai Garrett, a 2-year-old Fort Wayne boy who was allegedly beaten to death by his mother’s live-in boyfriend. Days after the Journal Gazette published DCS records showing multiple reports of abuse, the judge in the case, Allen County Superior Judge Fran Gull, ordered that jurors be brought in from another county.

The second Allen County case at the center of this bill is the murder trial against Daniel Pope for the killing of 5-year-old Benjamin McKinney-Frederick. Last week, the Allen County Prosecutor and the Chief Public Defender asked Judge Gull to impose a gag order on DCS records in Frederick’s case. In their joint request, the prosecutor and public defender’s office argue that if the public knows the details of the little boy’s abuse, it would “risk substantially prejudicing both the state and the defendant’s right to a fair trial.”

READ MORE: Gag order requested in release of DCS public records in 5-year-old boy’s death

It’s because of the Pope case that Powell is also asking that the bill be immediately enforced upon its passage – in an effort to prevent Frederick’s DCS records from seeing the light of day until after Pope’s trial, and if he is found guilty, after his sentencing.

The bill will now go to the full State Senate for a second reading, possible changes and a vote. If it clears the Senate Chamber floors then it moves on to the State House of Representatives.

Alexis Shear

Alexis Shear

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