BOISE — After three studies by the state’s Office of Performance Evaluations highlighted major problems in the states’ child protection system, lawmakers in 2018 enacted significant reforms, including creating citizen-review panels in each of the state’s seven health districts to review all child protection cases.

The 2018 legislation specifically required the review panel members, all of whom are required to pass criminal background checks, to be “granted access to copies of all records in the (Health & Welfare) department’s custody related to the child and case under review, including prior referrals, prior safety assessments, all court filings and any police reports,” plus additional information on request.

The review panels are now up and running, but lawmakers learned last week that panelists are not getting access to all the documents they need to review the cases, which involve allegations of child neglect or abuse.

Attorney John Sahlin, chairman of the District 1 review panel in Coeur d’Alene and the board chairman of Children’s Village, a shelter for abused or neglected children, told the Idaho Legislature’s Child Protection Legislative Oversight Committee that he’s frustrated. “What the hell are we doing here?” he asked.

Shannon McCarthy, a Boise attorney and a member of the District 4 review panel, said each member of her panel spends an average of 30 hours a month researching and reviewing cases. But, she said, “We have found we’re kind of at a standstill because of the insufficient information.”

“For instance, one of the cases had over 20 referrals to the department before the child was taken into care,” McCarthy said. “We don’t know why.”

She added, “We have requested the ability to access the foster parents to the specific cases we’re reviewing and to talk to them about their perspective in the process; however, we have been denied that access. We believe it’s an untapped resource. … Without some of that information, we’ve struggled a bit to effectuate our purpose.”

“We all have confidentiality agreements,” McCarthy noted. “We’re not in the business of trying to share information. We just want to do what we are supposed to do, and would request that we have a little help with that.”

Lawmakers were none too happy to hear this news, and asked Roxanne Printz, deputy division administrator at the Department of Health & Welfare for child protection, to explain.

“We want the panels to get what they need to make those really good recommendations,” Printz told the oversight committee. But she said the department’s legal review pointed to legal issues. Idaho law is “silent as to whether citizen review panels are able to seek out additional information from collateral sources other than the record that is maintained,” she said.

“We take confidentiality very seriously,” Printz said. “Social workers are trained to give information to foster parents as it only pertains to safety, permanency and well-being.”

She said the department would be glad to work with the Legislature to change the statute to specifically provide that access to citizen-review panel members.

Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, the co-chair of the oversight committee, said, “We look forward to addressing that, and be assured that we will take a look at that. … We want the panels to be able to look at these cases.”

The 2018 law charged Idaho’s public health districts with convening and providing administrative support to the review panels.

“We have asked a lot of our public health districts in the past year,” Lee said.

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, the House co-chair of the panel, railed against the districts, saying, “I’ve never been a big fan of health districts — I don’t think they do a good job in most cases, and some of ‘em looks like they’re doing nothing more than hoarding money.”

Sahlin disagreed. “I respect what the health district in the 1st District and any other district is doing as far as prevention is concerned,” he said. “My concern is we need to do more.”

Currently, the health districts oversee various home-visiting programs that have proven to be the best child abuse and neglect prevention efforts Idaho has, various officials and advocates told the oversight committee. Twelve of Idaho’s 44 counties have home-visiting programs for expectant parents or parents of toddlers that are funded by a federal grant; the Legislature in 2018 provided additional funding that allowed the programs to expand to 30 counties.

“We do have wait lists or access barriers that exist in all of our districts currently,” said Nikole Zogg, Region 3 public health district director with Southwest District Health in Caldwell. “I really feel strongly that this is a great investment,” she said.

“This is a brand-new process,” Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, said of the review panels. “The foster care improvement act of a couple of years ago was a beginning. We’ve brought together as a group the legislative, the judicial, Health & Welfare, outside child agencies. … So let’s keep it going, because this is only the second meeting of this committee. … I’m really looking forward to what we can do in the future together.”

Other issues also were raised at the oversight panel’s meeting Thursday at the state Capitol, including a big difference in the type of representation that children 11 and under get from a guardian ad litem and what those 12 and older get from a public defender; and concern that guardians ad litem, who are trained volunteers assigned to help represent children through child protection proceedings, should have more of a say in the process because they work directly with and understand the child.

Asked about funding needs, Sahlin told the lawmakers, “I don’t think, frankly, that the CRPs (citizen-review panels) are in a position to talk about money. Our attitude is you should spend whatever you’ve got in order to make these kids’ lives better.”

Lee said she’d like the state to address statutory changes regarding panel members’ access to information early in the upcoming legislative session, which starts Jan. 6.

Rakesh Mohan, director of the Office of Performance Evaluations, said his office will release its fourth study on child protection issues during the upcoming session. The study will focus on investigations into allegations of child neglect.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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