After 8-year-old Xzayvion Riley died June 12 of complications from a blow to his abdomen, the state agency responsible for protecting children from abuse and neglect could release only limited information about its role in trying to keep him from harm.
Trey Williams, spokesman for the state Department of Children and Family Services, said June 15 he could confirm that the agency had “an open and active case with the family,” but he could not say when the case was opened or give more detailed information about the steps the agency took.
The state law requiring the confidentiality of case records of clients of DCFS allows “limited public disclosure of summary information” in child abuse and neglect records when an examining physician determines that abuse or neglect was the cause of death of a child.
The limited DCFS disclosure was triggered by Dr. William “Beau” Clark’s preliminary autopsy report that Xzayvion died of “overwhelming infection” from a bowel rupture caused by blunt-force trauma to the boy’s abdomen.
The autopsy also showed 60 external signs of recent and old trauma, including abrasions, bruises and a human bite mark, said Clark, the East Baton Rouge Parish coroner. The boy also had a broken leg that had been surgically corrected.
The boy’s parents — Michael Robertson, 46, 11480 Glenda Drive, and Lavaughn Riley, 32, 8711 Coy Ave. — were booked into Parish Prison on one count each of first-degree murder.
Why do child protection cases remain closed to the public even in cases where a child dies and can no longer be harmed by publicity?
“The confidentiality that is there, is there for a reason,” DCFS Secretary Suzy Sonnier said.
“The law leans heavily toward protecting the confidentiality of the individuals involved in child abuse and neglect cases. That protection is not only for the victim, but also for other siblings and family members who may be impacted.
“Not only do we have to think about today, but also the impact it could have for years down the road for that child if that confidentiality is lost,” Sonnier said.
Marcia Robinson Lowry, founder and executive director of Children’s Rights, a New York advocacy group, said confidentiality in child abuse cases is important but public scrutiny of agencies is equally important.
“Basically, more openness leads to more accountability,” said Lowry, whose organization’s website says it has won legal victories on behalf of abused and neglected children in more than a dozen states.
“A lot of these systems nationally are run in such a way that children are damaged, and it’s very important for agency actions to be scrutinized by the public,” she said.
When a child in an active protection case dies, Lowry said, responsible ways of dealing with the confidential information about other persons can be found.
“Confidentiality is all too often put up as a shield by public agencies to keep the public from scrutinizing what they’re doing,” Lowry said.
Sonnier said state law doesn’t allow DCFS to redact certain information to make case files available to the public.
After the death of Xzayvion, the public learned more about the events leading up to his death from police reports than from DCFS records.
In other highly publicized child-abuse death cases, such as those of Courtney LeBlanc, of Denham Springs, and Mya George, of Port Allen, the public learned more about the steps taken by child protection agencies before their deaths from criminal trials and a civil lawsuit. Juvenile court proceedings, however, are not open to the public in abuse and neglect cases.
Cecile Guin, of the LSU School of Social Work, said she was heartbroken in hearing of Xzayvion’s death and believes “somebody fumbled the ball, because you don’t have those types of long, sustained injuries without somebody knowing something.”
State law allows DCFS to release certain information about child welfare cases to people doing academic research, and Guin said she has worked with the agency’s data over the years.
“The problem is that so much of it is so confidential because it hurts so many other children and who reported it, professionals who reported it and (details) sexual abuse. You just can’t have that stuff in the public,” Guin said.
“But I absolutely think there has to be a mechanism for some oversight on these cases. There has to be. This wasn’t like some drunk father coming in and slugging his kid. This was sustained abuse over a lifetime. The child (Xzayvion) must have suffered horribly before he died,” Guin said.
Guin receives newsletters and reports from across the nation dealing with child protection issues.
“I always see the headlines in other states, ‘Legislature calls for special hearing on this or that.’ A lot of states just don’t put up with child abuse cases like this,” she said.
Liz Betz, executive director of Capital Area Court Appointed Special Advocates, said she sees both sides of the disclosure issue.
News stories and public comment cannot hurt an abused child who dies, “but there are also siblings, parents, other family members who would be aware of any publicity about the case. So that’s one side,” she said.
“Where did the system fail this child? I don’t know. Or if it even did. Does releasing the name of the family lead us to where the system failed? I don’t know that it necessarily would,” Betz said.
“But there does need to be some processing place for an outside entity to revisit the case and see if everything was done according to the law and according to the agency policy,” Betz said.
“The bottom line is that there needs to be accountability and oversight. The real question is, can that be done without divulging the identity of innocent children?”
Lynda Gavioli, executive director of the Children’s Coalition of Northeast Louisiana, in Monroe, said she is not sure that opening files to public scrutiny would be helpful, and actually might harm an ongoing prosecution.
“But any time a child’s death is involved, we’ve got to be really diligent to prevent that from happening and to intervene at the first sign of trouble,” Gavioli said.
Gavioli’s agency contracts with the state to provide help for teenagers, many of whom were abused over the years.
“Trying to make sure that nobody drops the ball when an allegation is filed is just a major challenge. It’s hard to tell who dropped the ball,” she said.
Gavioli said Louisiana has multiple layers of protection for children, including law enforcement and the courts.
“It’s got to be a multiple, systemic kind of failure for this to happen. It’s not usually one particular agency that let this go on for so long,” Gavioli said.
Sharon Pol, director of the Baton Rouge Children’s Advocacy Center, said an outside review board should be formed to go through fatal child abuse cases.
“Usually, in most of these death cases, everybody’s dropped the ball in some form or fashion,” she said. “It’s breakdown on a lot of different levels.”
“The checks and balances in the system are that few, if any, decisions are made by one agency alone,” Sonnier said. DCFS works closely with the courts, law enforcement, hospitals, health professionals, teachers and community service groups such as CASA, she said.
Guin said she personally cannot criticize DCFS case workers because the department has been “hampered so badly by budget cuts that it’s a miracle they can function at all, in my opinion. I’m not kidding about this. I know they can’t say it, but I can say it as a faculty member of the School of Social Welfare.”
“I think it’s a fair statement to say that DCFS is understaffed due to budget cuts,” said Pol, of the Children’s Advocacy Center. “I was at a meeting with DCFS staff, kind of a review panel, and they said the same thing. The case load is extreme,” she said.
“Like any state agency, we’ve seen overall budget reductions; however, DCFS has continued to prioritize funding for child welfare services,” Sonnier said.
DCFS launched a centralized, toll-free child abuse and neglect hotline at (855) 452-5437 and is working with other state agencies in the Jindal administration’s Coordinated System of Care, she said.
Sonnier said the latter allows DCFS to use the expertise of other agencies and leverage funds to provide additional services.
“We’ve been able to prioritize, even with reduced funding,” Sonnier said.