FARGO: Keep some cheer for better public access

December 24, 2011

Anthony FargoBy the time you read this, the season of giving will be transitioning into the season of despair over the holiday bills. But I hope you have some capacity for giving left. Sometime during the new year, resolve to give a hoot about improving public access to government records.

Do it for the kids.

I’m not joking.

People like me believe that our press and our government are both better off when government bodies are required to make public as much information about how they function as possible. But we also can be a little grating on the subject, and sometimes we speak too abstractly. What types of records are we talking about? Why would anyone want to see them?

But the implications of some documents are easier to understand than others. For example, how about documents that reveal whether state employees failed to protect children from being killed or maimed by their families?

Recently, the Lexington Herald-Leader and the Louisville Courier-Journal in Kentucky began to receive hundreds of pages of documents from the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services after going to court to pry them loose. The documents, a story on the Herald-Leader’s Kentucky.com website said, were internal agency reviews of cases in which children had died or nearly died from abuse after the agency had had contact with the families.

In 2009 and 2010, 35 children died of abuse or neglect in Kentucky after the HFS had been in contact with the families about problems. Another 43 nearly died.

The newspapers discovered, however, that even though state law required the agency to conduct a review of any case in which a child died or was badly injured while the agency was monitoring his or her welfare, the reviews were inconsistent, often late and sometimes cursory.

The story also provided some insight into how hard the agency was working to make sure the newspapers—and, by extension, the taxpayers—knew as little as possible about those cases.

There are, of course, legitimate reasons to keep some information about child abuse and neglect cases secret. You don’t want to stigmatize a child by publicly identifying him or her if the situation is being resolved in a positive way.

But the Kentucky HFS redacted some of the documents it released to the paper (after kicking and screaming all the way) to hide the names of children who had died and no longer had privacy rights to protect, and the names of people arrested for killing or injuring them, even though such information would be public record elsewhere. It appeared the newspapers would have to go back to court to uncover some of the information blacked out by the agency.

The situation is not too much different in Indiana, where various media outlets a few years ago had to fight hard to get a child welfare agency to release its records about just one child who died while under state observation, TaJanay Bailey.

So what does this have to do with your giving spirit?

Public agencies often develop cultures of secrecy because they can get away with it, and because they see other agencies getting away with it. The right of access to information is like a muscle—if you don’t exercise it, it atrophies.

So, resolve that in 2012, you will do one or more of the following:

• Request a record from an agency or look it up in the Indiana Transparency Portal.

• Attend an event in person or via webcast when Sunshine Week, which honors freedom of information, returns in March.

• Join the Indiana Coalition for Open Government (OK, that’s a shameless plug—I’m on the board—but it’s still a good idea). See www.indianacog.org for details.

The point is, please give some of your time and attention to access to government records this year. The stakes may be higher than you think.•


Fargo is an Indiana University journalism professor and member of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


Recent Articles by Anthony L. Fargo / Special to IBJ

Comments powered by Disqus