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The Message of Millicent's Death


How well do New York City authorities protect children? The question arises once again because of the recent death of 6-year-old Millicent Ayala, allegedly at the hands of her aunt and foster mother. The question is depressingly hard to answer because the state's confidentiality law limits access to information in child abuse cases. As this tragedy demonstrates anew, the law needs reform.

Since March 1989, Millicent and a younger sister had been in the care of an aunt, Mary Ann Ayala, because of neglect by their mother. Millicent died when, according to court records, the aunt struck her with a shoe, placed her in a tub of cold water "for an extended period of time," and then taped her mouth shut. Ms. Ayala has been charged with the murder of Millicent and the attempted murder of her 4-year-old sister.

Could social workers have saved these children? The Human Resources Administration has released only sketchy information concerning its monitoring of the Ayala family. During the nearly three years that Millicent lived with her aunt, social workers visited the family 26 times. Human Resources officials will not say whether their visits were routine or in response to allegations of abuse. But one official noted that agency records do not show that the children's health or safety was endangered.

How can the public judge the agency's performance when state law prohibits release of information about child abuse investigations? The law is designed to shield troubled families and protect informants from retaliation. But when abuse or neglect cause a child's death, the public has a need to assess accountability.

State Senator Roy Goodman, Republican of Manhattan, would make that job easier. He has proposed legislation to allow more access to information when children die or when details of a case have already been exposed. State social service officials also plan to offer their own reform legislation. More accountability, at least in tragic cases when some children die, can help insure that many other children stay alive.

1992 Feb 29