When Elisa Izquierdo, a 6-year-old, was killed by her mother in 1995, she became a symbol of a dysfunctional bureaucracy, one that allowed a drug addict to retain custody of her daughter despite numerous reports of abuse.
The 1995 memorial service for Elisa Izquierdo.
The resulting outcry led to an overhaul of New York City’s child welfare system and the passage in Albany of Elisa’s Law, a measure loosening the secrecy regulations in child-abuse investigations. Among other reforms, the law required a public accounting of the events leading up to the death of any child in New York State who had been reported as abused or neglected.
But for the last five years, the state’s Office of Children and Family Services has been working quietly and persistently to limit access to those case reports, which in most instances are the only record of the circumstances leading up to the deaths.
In 2007, the office tried to have the law changed. When that failed, it made its own rule. According to a policy enacted by the office in September 2008, it will not release the fatality reports mandated by Elisa’s Law if there are siblings or other children in the home and officials decide that revealing the family’s abuse and investigative history is not in their “best interests.”
“This is like back to the future,” said Jeffrey Binder, who was press secretary for former State Senator Roy M. Goodman, Republican of Manhattan, when he sponsored Elisa’s Law. “We were trying very hard to remove the veil of secrecy.”
After The New York Times began asking about the policy on withholding reports, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the governor’s office would review the change.
The fatality reports were intended to permit public scrutiny of the performance of child welfare authorities while protecting the privacy of those involved. The reports do not identify deceased children, their caseworkers or anyone else by name. But they do list every complaint of abuse or neglect involving the child, the child welfare agency’s response to the complaints, and an assessment of whether the response was adequate.
The state issues about 250 fatality reports each year. And in 2010, for example, two-thirds of the reports issued in New York City involved homes with multiple children, meaning that under its new policy, officials could withhold information about their deaths.
“The whole point of this was to insist we were going to have accountability,” said Martin Guggenheim, a professor of law at New York University and an expert in child welfare law. “What we’re now stuck with is delegating to the commissioner the discretion to refuse to disclose a report because of her conclusion that it wouldn’t be in a child’s best interest.”
The state agency says it changed the rule out of concern for the privacy of surviving children. Elisa’s Law included a provision allowing the office to withhold reports if someone requested to see a particular child’s case. But state officials said anyone could get around that provision by simply asking to see all the reports in a given year.
“Our primary focus is protecting the interests of surviving siblings and family members,” said Gladys Carrión, the commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services.
Ms. Carrión said she could not provide an example of a child’s being harmed as a result of the release of a fatality report, but she said: “It is not far-fetched that releasing the information of a particular child would have an adverse impact on surviving siblings.”
Before her death, Elisa’s life seemed full of promise. She lived with her devoted father. Teachers described her as radiant. And a benefactor had agreed to pay for her education.
All of that changed when her father died of cancer and her mother, Awilda Lopez, was awarded custody. Ms. Lopez, whom acquaintances described as crazed by crack cocaine, said she saw the devil when she looked into her daughter’s face.
Ms. Lopez beat the girl, abused her sexually and subjected her to a barrage of hurt and humiliation. Finally, she smashed the girl’s head against concrete and left her lying slack-jawed and unconscious for two days until she died. Elisa was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Queens, where the epitaph carved into her tombstone pleads, “World Please Watch Over the Children.”
Relatives, teachers and others who had seen evidence of Elisa’s abuse had complained to child welfare authorities at least seven times.