The state Office of the Child Advocate has been investigating child deaths for 18 years, but it's never seen the scenario it is encountering now in its request for school records of deceased gunman Adam Lanza.
One thing is certain: the shooting deaths of 20 children last year at Sandy Hook Elementary School is different than any other investigation the office has been involved with before. That became clear recently, when the Child Fatality Review Panel, which is the investigative arm of the office, requested Lanza's report cards, attendance sheets, guidance counselor reports and other school records. The hope, panel members said, is to shed some light on what motivated Lanza to go on the rampage that killed six adults, as well as the children.
To make sure it leaves no stone unturned, the office added to its request "any and all records, and all communications between Newtown School personnel and any and all entities."
The Newtown school district has not released the information, saying it wants a court order before releasing any records related to the shootings.
That rare refusal to relinquish records related to a child's death has led to a somewhat unusual move by the Office of the Child Advocate. Two weeks ago, the office filed a petition seeking a court order for the Lanza records. That filing was made on the office's behalf by Assistant Attorney General Phillip Miller.
The request comes as a time of change for the Office of the Child Advocate, which issued a report on child gun deaths following the Newtown shootings in which it suggested policy changes to strengthen the state's assault weapons ban.
Former Child Advocate Jamey Bell made the initial request for Lanza's school records in March, but her term expired last month. New Child Advocate Sarah Eagan has inherited the role of overseeing the investigation, but she won't be on the job until later this month. Neither Bell or Eagan was available for comment last week.
Faith Vos Winkel, the assistant child advocate, said the goal of the request is to gain as much insight into what caused Lanza to go on the rampage, which is part of what the child advocate is required to do under a law enacted in 1995.
"We issue subpoenas all the time," Vos Winkel said, adding that they are not often refused. "Everything about Newtown is different. We think the school district is operating under an abundance of caution here and have every reason to expect this matter will soon be resolved."
Mindful of the school board's position, she added, "they're just being extremely careful about everything."
Michelle C. Laubin, the attorney for the Newtown School Board, said her client is cooperating with the Office of the Child Advocate "to provide any needed information in a way that complies fully with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act [FERPA] and related state and federal laws."
The request for a court order by the Child Advocate "is simply the next step in the process," said Laubin, who practices at Bercham, Moses & Devlin.
The Child Fatality Review panel, which completes reports for every suicide, murder or unexpected death of a child in the state, is comprised of two lawyers, five doctors and several members of social service-related professions. The panel is empowered as an investigative agency and able to issue subpoenas seeking records under Connecticut law. Using that authority, panel has issued detailed reports for 54 intentional deaths of children over the past 10 years.
When a child dies, the panel's role is to look at all of the facts and determine what happened, Vos Winkel said. The purpose isn't to pass judgment on a specific case, but to seek insights that could prompt legislative or policy changes.
She explained that state law spells out the number of law enforcement members, attorneys, medical professionals and social workers on the panel, with each being appointed either by the state Senate or governor. The idea of having a cross section of legal and medical professionals steering the investigations, she said, is make to make the reviews of child deaths as comprehensive as possible.
Current attorneys on the panel include Anne Mahoney, of the Office of Chief State's Attorney and Alexandra Dufresne, a staff lawyer with the Center for Children's Advocacy. Their work of piecing together a report on child deaths begins when the Chief Medical Examiner informs them of a new incident. Each year, about 120 unexpected child deaths are reported to the panel for review. All deaths are reviewed, but not every death results in a full published report.
Most of the time, the first records that the panel reviews are from police and the medical examiner. Interviews with parents and witnesses are conducted by attorneys and other panel members.
From information collected so far, including a vast listing of video games, weapons and other items from Lanza's home that were released earlier by the Office of Chief State's Attorney, the panel has already started its work. So far, Vos Winkel said, a portrait has emerged of a young man with long periods of social isolation. "I think from our perspective right now from what we've gathered, we're concerned about the level of isolation," Vos Winkel said.
Lanza attended a few middle schools, was home schooled and appears to have spent limited time in high school, she said. She compared the case to a 5,000-piece puzzle and said officials had only a limited number of pieces.
"Piecing this enormous complex puzzle together, we're beginning to see some education disruption certainly in middle school and, we believe, in high school," Vos Winkel said. "I think education disruption is a feature. Those will be some of the issues we're going to explore more fully."•