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Child services agency starts reviewing public data

Updated: September 14, 2012 10:27PM



INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indiana Department of Child Services is drawing fire for its decision to screen all information that it releases to the public, including news releases and external emails.

The agency has been stung in recent months by media reports and criticism of its handling of child abuse cases. On Tuesday, DCS Director James Payne announced in a memo issued that no information was to be released from the agency without first being reviewed by a committee.

“Recently, we’ve encountered some problems with multiple people releasing information from various sources,” said the memo, which an agency spokeswoman released to The Associated Press on Friday. “Sometimes this information gets misinterpreted” and results in inconsistent reports, the memo said.

The policy applies to all data, including financial and staffing information, data used in PowerPoint presentations, external emails, verbal or written communications, community presentations and press releases, according to the memo.

“This is essentially a review process that many organizations use,” agency spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland told the AP on Friday. “They’re making sure this data has a proper review from people who work with that data every day.”

Democratic state Sen. Vi Simpson said she had not heard of other departments using such a review process.

McFarland said the review policy is aimed at accuracy, but Simpson called it disturbing.

Simpson, who is running for lieutenant governor, said it sounds like Payne is trying to withhold information because of dissatisfaction with recent reports of the department’s handling of cases.

“This department was created to protect children, not to protect the director of the department,” Simpson told Indianapolis television station WRTV-TV. “It sounds like he is dissatisfied with the reports of the department’s outcomes so he’s trying to withhold information from the public.”

The South Bend Tribune was among the newspapers reporting on the agency. DCS in March lost its court fight against the newspaper to keep details of a May 2011 call to the state’s child abuse hotline secret. The call detailed abuse in a South Bend home where 10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis was beaten to death last November.

Concern about the agency’s statewide child abuse hotline and how it screens and responds to reports of child abuse have grown as child deaths around Indiana have been investigated by local media outlets. A special legislative committee has been reviewing the agency.

Public Access Counselor Joseph Hoage said the change is legal under Indiana public records laws, but he was concerned about potential delays.

“The committee should be mindful of the time limits in responding to a request for records ... and in providing all records within a reasonable period of time,” Hoage told WRTV.

McFarland told the station in an email that the policy wouldn’t add time to responses for public information and might actually reduce it.



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