BOISE -- An independent report released Monday on the tragic death of Robert Manwill is bringing to light a challenge for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

At issue for the department is balancing parental rights and elevated risks to children.

This is walking a razor's edge, said Dick Armstrong, Director of Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

After Robert Manwill died in 2009, there was public concern as to why Robert wasn't better protected by Health and Welfare.

Testimony during Daniel Ehrlick's murder trial last year revealed that social workers were in his mother's home throughout that summer because Robert's younger, half-brother was the center of a child protection case. Many in the community questioned how social workers overlooked the abuse of Robert that led to his death.

In July 2011, a 13-member independent panel assembled to examine the practices of Health and Welfare to determine if improvements could be made to prevent such a tragic death in the future.

The 18-page report makes more than a dozen recommendations as to how to better protect children like Robert Manwill. One of the recommendations focuses on the issue of contact children.

Children like Robert are referred to as contact children because they have contact with a household where there is an active protection case. However, Armstrong says protecting contact children can be a challenge for his department because they don't have legal authority over them.

The reason it's tricky business is because the adults that have custody of these children, it's their rights as a parent that we're talking about and some of them say, 'No, I'm going to make that choice, not you,' said Armstrong.

Armstrong says Health and Welfare has already implemented several changes in their practices involving contact children. For example, social workers will define all potential contact children and develop safety assessment plans for them. But as Armstrong points out, that requires the cooperation and honesty of all adults involved. And Health and Welfare can't legally force cooperation from the adults of contact children.

In Robert Manwill's case his mother, Melissa Jenkins, and her boyfriend, Daniel Ehrlick, hid Robert from social workers when they came for visitations regarding his younger, half-brother.

That's the fine line that we're walking. If a parent is or is not really being protective of their child, we want to have the ability to know who they are and go have a conservation with them, said Armstrong.

Armstrong says when it comes to contact children, it is a fine balance between parental rights and the elevated risk to child.

It's much more difficult than the Manwill Blue Ribbon Panel could possibly address because now we're getting right down to individual parental rights. And that is something that we simply can't barge into without statutory authority, said Armstrong.

The panel recommends considering legislative changes that would provide Health and Welfare more authority and jurisdiction over contact children, which Armstrong says the department is open to.

We want a panel to look at it and make recommendations to say, 'Okay here's some of the things you want to consider or have the citizen legislature consider,' said Armstrong.

Armstrong says the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is open to all the Manwill Blue Ribbon Panel's recommendations. However, finding the best solutions to the challenges of protecting contact children will likely take more time to resolve.

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