It could take Hoosiers years to learn about the circumstances leading to the deaths or near deaths of children from abuse or neglect under a bill moving through the Indiana General Assembly.

Since the early 2000s, the Indiana Department of Child Services has been required by Indiana statute to release, upon request, any records related to the case histories of such children. The idea behind the law was that other abused and neglected children stand a better chance of surviving and leading happy, productive lives if the public knows about problems in the child welfare system.

The law exempts from public disclosure information related to ongoing police investigations, partly so news media don’t interview witnesses before police can, but the new bill, authored by Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, would expand that exemption to also include cases in which criminal prosecutions are pending. 

“Obviously that makes the information unavailable for, it could be years, if you’re talking about a case that goes through the trial court, then is appealed up to the appellate court or even the Supreme Court,” said Steve Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association. “We definitely have concerns over this additional language.”

Key said he was trying to contact Messmer regarding the bill. The Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee unanimously approved an amendment containing the change Tuesday, sending it on to full Senate next for second reading.

The change is just one part of Senate Bill 551, a sweeping measure addressing victims of criminal acts, which has been assigned to the Corrections and Criminal Law Committee. At a committee meeting last week, David Powell, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, testified in support of the public access restriction, pointing to a Fort Wayne case as an example of why it’s needed.

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