Illinois Paper Denied State Records Access Despite New Law

By: Joe Strupp

An Illinois paper whose investigation into the state’s child welfare system led to legislation opening up the agency’s records to public scrutiny was denied access to files despite the new law.

The Belleville News-Democrat reported Sunday that its “first attempt to examine confidential case files under a new Illinois law designed to allow public scrutiny of the Department of Children and Family Services in child death cases failed to produce any information.”

“DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe last week denied a request by the News-Democrat to examine case files involving 3-year-old Bianca Starr, who died Sept. 27 of asphyxiation at her family’s home in Herrin,” the paper added. “Her mother, Karrae Starr, 18, who had been receiving DCFS services, was charged with first-degree murder. She is accused of holding her hand over Bianca’s mouth and pinching her nose until the toddler died.”

The paper states that the new law was enacted following legislators’ concerns about “widespread DCFS caseworker and supervisor errors reported in a 2006 News-Democrat series about 53 abused children who died while under the agency’s care. It was supposed to give the public an inside view of caseworker performance in child death and serious injury cases where someone was charged with a crime.”

The News-Democrat added that: “in a written response, Marlowe cited a provision of the new law, which took effect in June, that records can be withheld if they ‘may undermine an ongoing criminal investigation.’ He said he first contacted the prosecutor.”

Springfield lawyer Don Craven, counsel to the Illinois Press Association, criticized the DCFS decision not to release any information in the Starr case.

“I think they and the state’s attorney are overreaching a little bit,” he told the paper. “They can’t keep the whole thing secret. There is a presumption under the law that all, or most of it, should be public to keep the agency accountable. So it should be released.”

In October, the News-Democrat reported caseworker errors that preceded the death of three-year-old Kalab Lay. “The boy was returned by court order to his parents even though they had served prison terms for manufacturing methamphetamine at their home and were suspected of neglecting him,” the paper reported. “Kalab, who was under Illinois DCFS care, died in Indiana during an extended court-ordered visit with his parents, now charged with first-degree murder in his April beating death.”

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