Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Mother to view daughter's file
Suicide controversy
By Rebecca Walsh
The Salt Lake Tribune

The mother of a girl who killed herself in state custody will get to see case workers' report on the suicide.

State Records Committee members Thursday reclassified the documents to allow Debra Langdon to read the internal Department of Human Services report. If unchallenged, the decision could open the reports to families of all children who die in foster care.

"It's good for a start," said Wayne Searle, Langdon's attorney.

Assistant Attorney General Debra Kurzban said she did not know if the state would appeal the committee's decision to district court.

Langdon has been battling with the state since her daughter was handcuffed and led away from school more than two years ago. She has hired Searle and intends to sue, alleging state workers contributed to her daughter's death.

"I want to change the system," she said. "I want the people who killed my daughter to be punished."

Katherine Langdon was taken into state custody in March of 2004 when her mother appealed to the state for help with the girl. After months in detention for alleged drug use and three attempted suicides, the 16-year-old hanged herself in her foster home two years ago. Her mother argues state social workers and doctors did not take the earlier suicide attempts seriously enough and prescribed an anti-depressant drug that made the girl even more despondent.

A year ago, Searle informed the state that he intended to file a wrongful death suit. In preparation, he and Langdon requested and received several documents from the state, including part of the Division of Child and Family Services' case file and copies of the girl's urine tests. But the state balked at providing a "Fatality Review Report."

Human Services officials and state attorneys argue the reports are confidential under Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act, and Langdon does not have the legal right to get a copy.

In a charged hearing Thursday, Searle compared the case to the nation's war against terror and initially accused Records Committee members of trying to cover up for DCFS. At one point, he threatened to bring in federal marshals to seize the records.

"We have gotten very limited and redacted statements - all to support the family of the state," he said, implying the government is bent on protecting itself. "This death happened in 2004. It's 2006. They do not want to admit they have been negligent.

"This mother has a right to know how her child was killed," he added.

Langdon said the state kept her in the dark. "I never knew she was cutting herself. I never knew she was on Zoloft. I had no idea what she was going through," she said.

State Archives Director Patricia Smith-Mansfield said she sympathized with Langdon, but tried to keep the hearing focused on the record in question.

"I can feel a tremendous amount of despair," Smith-Mansfield said. "But the purpose of this committee is to decide the access to records."

Kurzban urged committee members to keep the records - a "self-monitoring tool" for DHS - secret. She said Langdon could get much of the same information in the case file. Exposing the fatality reports would jeopardize internal department procedures and the anonymity of those involved in specific cases, she said.

"In order for that process to be useful, all of those involved need to feel free to participate candidly," Kurzban said.

Finally, Kurzban argued that Langdon and her daughter were not the subject of the fatality review; the Human Services department was. Therefore, Langdon had no right to the report under GRAMA.

"The subject of the report is the system itself," Kurzban said. "It is not about any person. It is not about any family."
Records Committee members were not convinced by that argument. "It is about a person," said Linda Thatcher. "I don't understand that."

In the end, the committee reclassified the documents as "private" and ordered the report about Katherine Langdon's suicide released. Recommendations and an analysis of "systemic issues" at the end of the report will be blacked out.

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