• Florida Judge Orders State Child Welfare Agency to Turn Over Abuse Records
  • May 17, 2007 | Author: David C. Borucke
  • Law Firm: Holland & Knight LLP - Tampa Office
  • The News-Press, Gannett’s newspaper in Fort Myers, Florida, persuaded the state to cooperate and a judge to agree to open up child welfare agency records that showed state workers had at least 20 previous reports before removing from their parents’ custody six children living in deplorable conditions.

    On February 8, 2007, the Florida Department of Children and Family Services (DCF) removed the children from the Fort Myers home of the Hernandez family. The newspaper quickly filed a petition asking the court to require DCF to make its files public. On March 15, 2007, the records were released by order of Circuit Court Judge James H. Seals. The resolution of this Florida Public Records Act case has two notable aspects.

    First, the story that the News-Press ultimately told is heartbreaking in the allegations of abuse and neglect that the files document. Police investigators allege that the children’s parents mentally and physically abused their 10-year-old daughter by feeding her scraps like a dog and often locking her in a dark room or closet, isolated from her siblings. Also, the reports indicate that the child was often forced to sleep outside on a piece of cardboard and she would have no choice but to urinate in her clothes. The Hernandez home was alleged to be in an unkempt, squalid condition, according to the records. The parents now face criminal child abuse and neglect charges.

    The second notable aspect of this case was the quick release of the documents – which may be opened only through a court petition stating grounds set out by Florida Statute, and after a hearing – which indicates the court and the involved parties recognized that prompt disclosure best serves the public interest. Ordinarily, the release of DCF records is a time-consuming process because child abuse and neglect records are presumptively confidential and exempt from public records law. Under the Florida Legislature’s narrow provisions for public disclosure, the court must balance the public interest against the privacy interests of the individuals identified in the records. Naturally, the best interest of the affected children is always the foremost concern. But the interest in public disclosure is also significant, because Florida citizens need to obtain information about DCF in order to adequately evaluate the agency’s performance.

    In this case, the court held a hearing the day after the News-Press filed its petition. The court heard from DCF, the guardian ad litem for the Hernandez children, and the criminal attorneys for the Hernandez parents. The court set up a process by which DCF and the guardian proposed redactions to the DCF documents to remove identifying, private information about the Hernandez children, which the court then reviewed en camera. The court acted quickly to release the documents.

    DCF itself was unusually cooperative in expediting this process, actually deciding to join the newspaper’s petition, consistent with a public commitment that the new director has made to transparency for the agency, which has had several high-profile neglect cases suggesting inadequate monitoring of at-risk households.

    Based on the records obtained through this court filing, the News-Press was able to report that DCF had investigated the Hernandez parents at least 20 times before their six children were removed. The records begin in 1994 with a claim of sexual abuse and inadequate care. Over the course of 12 years, the Hernandez parents were found to be neglectful 15 times. On six additional occasions, DCF investigators found problems such as a dirty, cluttered home. In light of the most recent abuse and neglect, DCF admitted to reporters that the agency had made mistakes and this was an opportunity to take steps to improve investigative techniques.

    In short, the reporting on the Hernandez story done by the News-Press here underscores, in a concrete fashion, how the disclosure of government documents serves the public interest – such disclosure is often the first, necessary step towards reform. Through the reform that transparency brings, situations like that of the Hernandez children might be resolved more quickly.