Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Family-services cabinet gets a runner-up national Black Hole Award for secrecy

The state Cabinet for Health and Family Services' insistence on secrecy about deaths of childred for which it has responsibility has made it a runner-up in the Society of Professional Journalists' new Black Hole Award. SPJ says it created the award "to highlight the most heinous violations of the public's right to know." The award went to the Utah Legislature, which excluded electronic records from the state open-records law.

SPJ says the cabinet "has embarked on a campaign of obfuscation aimed at preventing the public from learning the details about the death of a toddler under the cabinet’s supervision. . . . The infant died in May 2009 after drinking drain cleaner at what police have described as a methamphetamine lab." SPJ notes that the cabinet "has a blanket policy of refusing to disclose all information in child abuse and neglect cases" and quotes Franklin Circuit Judge Philip Shepherd, who said its bias in favor of confidentiality seems to be driven more by the culture of the agency, "which seeks to avoid public scrutiny," than by the law.

The cabinet failed to conduct an internal review of the death, as required by law. The Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader asked Shepherd to require the cabinet to produce related records; most of what the cabinet produced was redacted, and the judge ordered it to return with the entire unredacted record so that he could decide what would be released. Then the cabinet issued emergency regulations with the force of law to restrict access to such records. The papers filed suit again, asking Shepherd to strike down the regulations and order the cabinet to release the records. The cabinet has petitioned to move the lawsuit to federal court, arguing that federal law prohibits the cabinet from releasing information about children who die in its care. SPJ asks, "What is more egregious than a state government refusing to provide answers to the people of the state about the death of a child in its custody?"

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