What a horrible way to start a new year: Aiken County authorities charge that 15-month-old Brittany Nicole Weeks was beaten to death by her mom's boyfriend while the mother either participated in the fatal abuse or tried to cover it up. No punishment would be harsh enough if the accused - Roy Clark Morris Jr., 25, and Shannon Renee Weeks, 22 - are convicted of this brutal crime.
But that's not all a distressed public should be concerned about. There had been indications of abuse before the killing. The Department of Social Services had even investigated the family.
According to DSS spokesman Jerry Adams the toddler was "known to the system," which includes child welfare and protective services. But the agency only had "limited involvement" in the investigation. Adams said the earlier probe cleared the mother, but he couldn't say more than that because of the state's confidentiality law.
The law is designed to protect the privacy of clients DSS deals with. But the client in this case, baby Brittany, is dead. Privacy rights for the deceased serve no purpose.
They can serve a purpose, however, for the investigating agency. Confidentiality can be exploited by officials to cover up a bungled probe.
To be sure, there's no evidence of a foul-up in the earlier Weeks family investigation, but there's no evidence there wasn't a foul-up either. The public simply doesn't know because confidentiality prevents disclosure of the details of the investigation.
In 1994, the Aiken County DSS came under withering fire from social welfare experts and law-enforcement officials following the deaths of two North Augusta children under the agency's care, even though the agency had been warned of earlier incidents of abuse.
Further investigation showed that due either to recklessness or incompetence, nine children had died in foster homes supervised by DSS during the previous eight-year period. The agency got a new director who replaced nearly all the supervisors and caseworkers in the child protection unit and updated computer equipment and other communication and investigative tools.
No one wants to go back to the bad old days. But to ensure that won't happen, the legislature still has some unfinished business to do.
It should heed the calls first made seven years ago to open up the agency's decision-making process to more public scrutiny - starting with repeal of confidentiality for victims of fatal or near-fatal abuse and their abusers.
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