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Senate Bill 223 will hide autopsy records and hurt kids 

Editor's Note

Alize Vick was 2 years old when her abusive foster mom, Jules Cuneo, threw her head-first into a coffee table and killed her in 2007.

No doubt Cuneo, who lived in El Paso County, would have paid for her crime whether the media got involved or not. But the repeated failures of the state’s child welfare system — which allowed little Alize to stay in an abusive home even after Cuneo had been reported repeatedly for abuse — likely would have flown under the radar were it not for the media. And the fact that Alize was part of a larger, disturbing pattern was only uncovered due to an investigative series by The Denver Post and 9News.

Brown-eyed, pig-tailed Alize, it turns out, wasn’t the only child “failed to death” by the system intended to protect her. Reporters found that between 2007 and the time of the report in 2012, 175 Colorado kids had died of abuse and neglect. Caseworkers knew that 72 of those kids’ families or caregivers were abusive before the child died in their care.

The Post notes, “The series uncovered issues ranging from a lack of cooperation between police and caseworkers, to disparities in funding and a lack of coordination between county and state officials. It spurred reform, including the creation of a statewide hotline, the hiring of more child protective workers, new training and an increase in funding.”

The stories of these 72 lost children saved other kids like them. But the kids couldn’t speak for themselves anymore, so their stories came from public records — most notably, their autopsy reports.

And that’s important to keep in mind when you consider the perhaps well-intentioned but dangerous and ill-conceived Senate Bill 223. Sponsored by our own Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, it would ban the release of all autopsy reports from minors in Colorado, with a few exceptions for parents, law enforcement, courts and some state agencies.

Gardner tells me he had reservations about the bill when El Paso County Coroner Robert Bux first proposed it to him but decided to carry it when Colorado’s 64 coroners said they were on board. The bill passed the Senate nearly unanimously and is being considered by the House.

Bux, who decided against running for reelection this year, has been on a protective streak of late. Back in March of 2017, I requested the autopsy files of suicide victims, aged 18 and younger, for the past year. I had made similar requests in the past and had always received the records promptly. But this time, County Attorneys Diana May and Amy Folsom contacted me and asked whether I would like to drop my request, or have a judge decide whether they were releasable.
The attorneys said Bux, in an unorthodox move, had asked each child’s parents whether they wanted the reports released, and some of the parents had said no (later I was told all the families had said no). He therefore was trying to prevent their release by claiming that doing so would create a “substantial injury to the public interest” — a currently existing reason used to block the release of such records that was employed during the Columbine school shooting.

I first asked the county to release the reports with names and addresses redacted. They declined. I next chose to have a judge decide, which would give me a chance to make my case. I was not mailed the petition to the court or the later order, and while I was initially told I would be notified of a court date, none was ever set. District Court Judge Larry Schwartz ultimately sided with the county.

Let me be frank: It’s strange to be in the position of advocating for the release of something as morbid as the autopsy reports of children, especially when their grieving families would rather hide them. Each one of these documents is the record of a family’s most terrible day — one they’d surely prefer not to relive.

But I have to believe that reporters don’t request these in an effort to hurt families. In fact, in the case of suicide, I avoid using kids’ names, or saying how they took their lives. I have a protective streak too.

El Paso County has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the nation, and like most reporters, I would like to make the world a better place. So when I get these reports, I look for patterns. Did the kids share a school? Could there have been abuse at the school? Were they on the same antidepressant? Is it possible this drug has dangerous side effects? Did the families seek help for their child’s mental health? Were they unable to access it in time? Was there a history of bullying?

I’m looking for a warning that might help the next family avoid a similar tragedy. I also talk to school districts and ask what they’re doing to prevent suicide. If they have counselors. And if they don’t, why not. Kids are far more likely to get the mental health help they need if a counselor is in the school.

So here’s my point: You don’t solve a youth suicide crisis by hiding it. And that’s what this bill does.

But that’s just one part of what this bad bill would do. It would also prevent news stories about kids like Alize that reform systems and save lives. It would prevent critical reporting on police killings of children, like 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez, who was shot in Denver in 2015. It would prevent questions about botched investigations, like the one for JonBenét Ramsey. It would prevent journalists from looking for patterns in deaths caused by, say, an environmental toxin. And it would also prevent nonprofits that do wonderful work on behalf of kids in troubled situations from accessing information that can help them do their life-saving work more effectively.

As Denver First Amendment Attorney and President of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition Steve Zansberg puts it, “There is no compelling reason why a huge swath of public records that document the official performance of public functions should be enshrouded in secrecy.”

The autopsy reports of children are horrible and painful. But to ensure the safety of our kids, they must remain public.

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