Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury

A proposal meant to help social workers in the field by giving them more information about a family’s history died on a party-line vote in subcommittee on Tuesday.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Loudoun, would have required the Department of Social Services to keep records of investigations that were deemed unfounded for three years, rather than just one. Unfounded means there wasn’t enough evidence to suggest that the alleged abuse or neglect occurred.

Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke.

The point was to give social workers more information when they’re looking into cases about a family’s past investigations so that the workers can make better, more informed decisions.

“The single biggest predictor of the fatality of a child is a call — not an investigation, not an intervention — but a call to social services,” Gooditis told the House Health, Welfare and Institutions subcommittee. “If we have records of these calls, and if there are more than one over a period of more than a year, then perhaps there is a need for an intervention.”

She noted the high turnover rates within local departments across the state, meaning those agencies frequently lose institutional knowledge about a family.

“The more information we have about a family when we receive the call, the better,” Rebecca Morgan, director of the Middlesex Department of Social Services and legislative chair of the Virginia League of Social Services Executives, told the committee. “Three years protects kids. If they get older, they’re able to talk, they’re able to get stronger, they’re able to recount these tragic traumatic events with language that we can understand.”

But the subcommittee’s four Republicans voted against the bill, outnumbering the two Democrats. Del. Robert Orrock, R-Caroline, noted that the measure had come before the General Assembly in 2014 as a recommendation of the Crime Commission. At that time, the legislature voted to keep the records for just one year, thinking that was a reasonable amount of time.

Del. Robert Orrock, R-Caroline.

“The fact that it’s unfounded means you’re not guilty, and you’ve been through the investigative process and you’ve found no abuse,” he said. “People being people, if I know there was a whiff of smoke at your house before, and I’ve gotten another whiff, I’m somewhat predisposed to think there’s a problem.”

Gooditis pointed out that the information is never public record, but kept confidential within DSS so that it is only available to caseworkers.

Other records are kept for three years, such as family assessments. Those are done when social workers, rather than determining a case as founded or unfounded, instead assess what services a family needs. It’s meant to prevent cases of child abuse or neglect from occurring in the first place.

“In the field, there is discussion sometimes when we’re assessing the family assessment versus the investigation track,” Morgan told the subcommittee. “Sometimes we say: That’s going to be really hard to prove, let’s take it as a family assessment because we know we can keep it for three years. Is that right? No. But do those discussions happen in our everyday life in the field? Yes they absolutely do.”