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Police Searching for Missing Boy Can't See Confidential Records
December 27, 2014 permalink
What is more important, finding a missing child or protecting confidentiality? In New York State last week five-year-old foster boy Kenneth White was missing. Police looking for the boy asked to see records of family history. They were refused on grounds of confidentiality. The records would have shown mental health counseling for Brenda VanAlstyne, the boy's aunt and foster mother. The boy was eventually found dead.
Laws blocked cops from reviewing Family Court records in 5-year-old's death
Albany County sheriff seeks child protective law change after Knox case
In the tense hours after a young Knox woman claimed last week that two masked men had kidnapped her 5-year-old cousin, police investigators were prohibited from accessing confidential child-protective services records that would have provided reams of background on the boy's troubled family.
Instead, police were informed by child protective services officials in both Albany and Montgomery county, where the boy's mother lives, that health privacy laws prevented the agencies from releasing any information on the family's history. Among the information withheld from the investigators was that there had been court-ordered mental health counseling for an aunt, Brenda VanAlstyne, who was one of the missing boy's caretakers.
Her 19-year-old daughter later was charged with killing the child.
During the initial hours, as the young woman's story started to unravel, police were left to sift through finger-pointing allegations from the boy's apparently dysfunctional family, including one lead that his estranged father may have taken him.
Police investigators, who were almost immediately suspicious of the kidnapping claim made by 19-year-old Tiffany VanAlstyne, said CPS workers told them that in order to access the child-protective records on the boy's biological family, a deputy or an investigator would need to report the alleged kidnapping to a state child-abuse hotline. That would have allowed the department to receive a case number and gain access to at least some of the CPS records.
But that plan failed when the CPS Hotline's legal department contacted sheriff's investigators and said the state agency could not open a case because of a "lack of concrete information regarding the parents of Kenneth White being suspects in this case," according to a sheriff's memorandum that documented the exchange.
Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple on Wednesday confirmed that he had discussed the matter with the county attorney and intends to meet with state legislators early next month to see if the law can be changed.
"We had more than enough probable cause to get those records," Apple said, adding the CPS background information could have been invaluable to investigators who were picking apart the 19-year-old woman's account that she had been overpowered by two masked men she claimed kidnapped the boy.
Hours later, a police dog directed officers to a culvert across the road from the family's trailer where the body of Kenneth White was found tucked under snow. He had been strangled and bludgeoned, according to police, and Tiffany VanAlstyne allegedly confessed to attacking the boy in a fit of rage.
Tom Marcelle, the county attorney, said he discussed the CPS records issue with the sheriff on Tuesday.
"It is kind of the wall the state has set up," Marcelle said, referring to privacy protections of CPS records, including medical information. Marcelle said that even law enforcement agencies will generally need a court order to get access to the confidential files. "In the case of a murder investigation or a missing kid ... it's cumbersome," he added. "When a kid goes missing it's different from a misdemeanor but the state's going to have to balance those privacy issues with the exigent circumstances."
At Tiffany VanAlstyne's arraignment last week, Brenda VanAlstyne said her daughter has bipolar disorder but had never been violent. Tiffany VanAlstyne also disclosed her condition when the town justice arraigning her asked if she took any medication.
"It was an impediment not to have facts about this family from CPS," the sheriff said. "It certainly would have allowed us to focus in another area sooner than we did. We may have been able to focus earlier than we did. We had nothing. The family members were all throwing mud on each other and we couldn't separate fact from fiction."
Tiffany VanAlstyne is being held at Albany County jail without bail pending a grand jury review of the case.
Source: Albany Times Union