Today is the start of Sunshine Week, a national initiative on the importance of open government and freedom of information.
It’s about making sure the public has access to information that affects lives and communities.
While many government records are open to the public, Kansas law still allows many important records to be kept from public view.
Consider the closed child-in-need-of-care records, which include the SRS investigation used to decide whether to remove a child from the home. Numerous times, family
members have offered to give us the CINC reports on their cases. Usually they are parents who are angry that SRS took their child, or grandparents who are upset that
SRS left the child in the home. Even though the parents want to give us the filesto write stories about their particular case, we can’t look at them. They are closed
under state law, and reading them is a misdemeanor.
Not being able to review records has a chilling effect on our ability to report on government’s intervention in the lives of children and families.Closed records also rob
residents of their abilityto scrutinize how the public institutions their taxes support are doing their jobs.The state allows media and others to petition the court in the
case of a child’s death or near death, but even that doesn’t assure the records will be open. Remember Adam Herrman, the 10-year-old boy from Towanda who
disappeared a decade ago? The Eagle, KWCH-12 and the Associated Press filed a motion in Butler County District Court to get the SRS child-in-need-of-care record on
Adam. We hoped to find out more about the police and SRS investigation into allegations that Adam was being abused. We also wanted to know just how a child could
vanish for 10 years without anyone noticing.
The judge declined to release the records, saying there was no finding that the child was dead even though prosecutors and police were investigating the disappearance
as a possible homicide.Here are other cases where open records would better serve the public. These are routinely available in other states.
„øChild care records. Want a list of all child care homes in Wichita so you can pick the best one? Forget it. We had hoped to build a searchable database on our web
site, Kansas.com, to allow parents needing day care to search child care homes, view the inspection reports and read the inspectors’ comments. State agencies are
prohibited by law from releasing a list of the child care homes. Parents can call the Kansas Department of Health and Environment in Topeka and ask about violations at
an individual home, but it is not as convenient as searching a database.
„øWant to know what reason police had to arrest someone? You won’t be able to find that out either. Kansas is the only state that closes probable-cause affidavits,
which spell out the legal justification for arresting a person.
„øWant to know which neighborhoods in the county are gaining value the fastest? Real estate sales records are closed to the public. The Sedgwick County Appraiser’s
Office has posted sales information on its web site for those who wish to challenge their property appraisals. But past information is not available under the law, making it
impossible for anyone but real estate agents and appraisers to track trends over time.