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False Record Disclosure
September 15, 2012 permalink
For years Arizona's child protectors have responded to record requests from parties to litigation, such as parents, with expurgated reports containing only a small portion of the true record. Now that the omissions have come to light, CPS is saying it was a computer glitch. The news article shows that different parties got different versions of the record, showing careful programming to control the flow of information.
Arizona CPS discovers computer glitch that hid files for years
Arizona’s child-welfare agency has discovered a computer glitch that officials say kept public records from parents, lawyers and others for more than 15 years, a malfunction that could have led to children being wrongly removed and prevented caregivers from supporting civil claims against the state.
The computer error affected thousands of families, and attorneys say it could prompt efforts to reopen civil and child-dependency cases.
Officials with the state Department of Economic Security, which oversees Child Protective Services, were notifying the state’s 15 presiding Juvenile Court judges of the glitch on Friday and sending notices to more than 30,000 people who received incomplete public records over the past two years.
The state said it is unable to track or notify those who requested and received incomplete records before 2010.
Those receiving notices include parents involved in the nearly 8,600 open dependency cases, about 1,500 parents who have requested records on their CPS cases, nearly 1,200 judicial or law-enforcement requests, 55 members of the media, and more than 21,000 attorneys.
The records fiasco is the latest blow to the embattled agency, which has spent the past year trying to stem record growth in the number of children in foster care, slow staff turnover and reduce caseloads only to see all those numbers going in the wrong direction.
“If a case got to the wrong result because information wasn’t disclosed, that’s a big, big problem,” said Mark Kennedy, who has represented about 400 parents over the past three years. “To me, it’s pretty significant when CPS says we’re going to contact 21,000 lawyers. That’s like saying, ‘Start searching your case files because there may be some problems out there.’ “
Maricopa County Juvenile Court Judge Aimee Anderson said she expects it to become a larger issue for civil, criminal and family courts than the Juvenile Court, where about 90 percent of dependency cases are settled without a trial. But she added that a lot depends on what information was missing from the requested records.
“It’s hard to know the real impact that this is going to have, because we don’t know what we didn’t get,” she said. “I really think the state’s bigger problem is in the criminal arena … and lawsuits against the department.”
State and federal laws protect the confidentiality of CPS case information, but parents and caregivers who are the subject of CPS reports, and their attorneys, are supposed to have access to much of it in order to defend themselves against allegations of abuse or neglect, as well as efforts to place their children in foster care or permanently end their parental rights.
Under state law, CPS is required to release case information to judges, parties in dependency cases or their attorneys, as well as criminal defendants.
In addition, the agency must publicly release certain information on child fatalities or near fatalities and is permitted to confirm, clarify or correct information about ongoing cases that has been made public by another source, such as law enforcement.
Attorneys who represent parents and children in CPS cases say withholding these public records could prove costly for the state if it turns out children were removed from or returned to parents based on incomplete or inaccurate information.
The withheld information could be substantive, including:
Details of Child Abuse Hotline reports.
Services provided to the family.
Case notes and documentation from CPS workers and supervisors.
Assessments of children who participated in services.
Appeals of previous child-maltreatment findings.
DES spokeswoman Tasya Peterson said the problem was discovered in June during an annual review of the agency’s public-disclosure practices. An employee noticed that different sets of records were released to different parties in the same case.
Further review found the database system that tracks CPS cases, called CHILDS, had been programmed to print about one-third of the information considered public record under state and federal law. The programming error had been in place since the database was created in 1996.
“We thought we were printing out everything that there was,” Peterson said. “We didn’t have any reason to believe until this summer that we were not meeting our obligations.”
The CHILDS database has been a source of frustration for caseworkers almost since its inception, and streamlining the antiquated, clunky system has been a key agency goal. Until earlier this year, it took caseworkers a full day to input one case into the system.
Each CHILDS case can encompass hundreds of separate fields, or screens, and includes everything from the first hotline call to the most recent case notes. It includes information from witnesses, police, and interviews with children and caregivers.
Attorney Jorge Franco said he’s not surprised that CPS has discovered problems with its public disclosure.
He has sued CPS roughly 20 times and won seven-figure verdicts against the agency.
Franco said the computer glitch could expose the state to liability if it can be shown that additional records would have changed the outcome of a case.
“I have absolutely no doubt that because of this (CPS has) gotten a pass on tons of claims,” Franco said. “The big ‘so what’ is that the statistics … are skewed by the fact that there’s a bunch of claims out there that never made it into claims.”
Peterson said the computer program was designed to print 37 screens in response to public-records requests when it should have printed 98 screens. A screen doesn’t necessarily equate to one page of information.
The review found that much of the information included in the 61 missing screens was already contained in the documents that the agency released.
People requesting public records “were given the majority of the information,” Peterson said.
Attorney Joseph Ramiro-Shanahan, who also represents parents and children in dependency court, said that’s not much consolation. “That’s convenient for them to say, but who knows?” he said. “I don’t even know what I’m missing.”
Source: Tucson Citizen