A Child is Dead and Silence Reigns
Public needs answers on criminal probe, DHS actions.
By Register Editorial Board
July 23, 2005
The murder of 5-year-old Evelyn Miller in Floyd County is both a heartbreaking tragedy and a frustrating mystery, and the absence of public information has a rural community on edge.
Authorities have kept a lid on details, and rumor and speculation have flooded into the void.
The public has a legitimate interest in two aspects of this case: There is the continuing criminal investigation, and as many details about that as possible should be made public now. Then there are questions about the state Department of Human Services' involvement with Evelyn and her caretakers, which ultimately deserves a full airing as well.
Tight-lipped law-enforcement authorities say they simply don't have much information to report, and it's still an active investigation. Fair enough. It is a delicate balance to pursue a criminal case in a fishbowl. But in a case such as this, where public apprehension and suspicions grow each day, authorities have a responsibility to be as forthcoming as possible. That does not appear to be the case so far.
Questions also have been raised about whether DHS properly responded to reported concerns about Evelyn's welfare. Her relatives have accused the department of failing to protect her. That brings to mind the case of Shelby Duis, who was beaten to death in 2000. That case led to changes in state law intended to bring more scrutiny to the state's handling of cases of child abuse that lead to the death or near death of a child. The changes clearly did not go far enough.
Gov. Tom Vilsack reviewed the department's case file under a new state law passed in the wake of Shelby's death. He issued a statement saying he found no "evidence that suggested or indicated that this child was at risk to be abducted or injured, or that additional action on the part of the DHS was warranted."
At the same time, DHS officials have initiated an assessment of the agency's actions, which is due to be completed by Aug. 1. That DHS report will ultimately be released to the public - but only after law-enforcement authorities give the go-ahead. At the earliest, that likely would come after completion of any criminal trial, and possibly never.
Law-enforcement authorities understandably want to avoid public disclosures that might interfere with their investigation. Eventually, however, whenever neglect or abuse leads to the death of a child, the public should know all the details to judge whether the state did everything in its power to prevent the tragedy. It is not enough that the governor issues vague statements or that the department is allowed to put its own spin on its conduct.
When a child is dead, after the initial criminal prosecution is completed, it's hard to think of a reason why all DHS records in the case should not be made public. The Legislature should change the law to ensure that happens.