John Hult tries to write a detailed report on investigations of abuse in South Dakota's foster care system. Writing such a report is hard, Hult notes, because South Dakota keeps such investigations secret.

But it's children! you say. We can't subject those children or their families to public scrutiny and shame. It might deter people from coming forward with reports of neglect and abuse.

Funny: Minnesota doesn't have that problem:

In Minnesota, that information would be available. In 2001, the state opened all abuse and neglect hearings and records after a two-year pilot project. The response has been positive, said Judy Nord, a lawyer with that state's Judicial Branch.

"We still have arguments in Minnesota about whether a child should have been placed in one home or the other. That hasn't stopped," she said. "The difference is that now, if something happens, you can go back through and find out what happened throughout the process."

Before the pilot project, opponents argued that opening records would lead to disclosure of the names of the children and families involved, that people would be less willing to report abuse for fear of the spotlight, and that parents would contest the allegations and press for a trial instead of admitting them in public.

Those concerns were unfounded, Nord said.

"The hearings are open, the records are open, and we haven't seen any problems," she said. "We still have people reporting abuse, we still have as many admissions as we did before opening the hearings."

Now, Nord said, relatives, teachers and others close to a child have started appearing at the hearings to offer help [John Hult, "Secrecy Cloaks Foster Care Investigations by S.D. Social Services," that Sioux Falls paper, 2014.05.04].

I suppose that saying we should learn from Minnesota's example is a sure way to get Pierre not to take the desired action.

Among the information Hult can find are the data on investigations and substantiated case of abuse and neglect in foster homes and other homes in South Dakota. The foster care numbers are small and thus statistically less reliable, but Hult's numbers show that the percentage of investigations revealing substantiated cases of abuse and neglect in foster homes over the last five fiscal years is about 7%, compared to 22% for other homes. From these numbers, one could draw a number of logical guesses:

  1. Foster homes are subject to more scrutiny and thus more reports of possible abuse, which subsequently turn out to be unsubstantiated.
  2. The state's vetting process for foster parents works, producing a subset of caregivers who commit less abuse than the general population of parents and guardians.
  3. Foster homes' substiantiation-to-investigation ratio is depressed by the fact that the state has an interest in protecting itself from liability that colors its initial investigations in a way that does not happen in investigations of non-foster homes.

As long as South Dakota keeps its investigations of foster homes secret, citizens will have a hard time determining which of those three interpretations is the most accurate.