Lawmaker says foster care case files may be too open

TOPEKA — Earlier this year, the Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services loosened its records policy to allow parents whose children are now in the foster care system to sign a one-page release form that gives a select House or Senate member access to their family’s case file.

The move gives lawmakers access to records that explain, in detail, the circumstances that led to a child being removed from his or her home. That can include narratives of alleged abuse, medical files, psychiatric evaluations, drug tests, court records, credit history and payment history, among other things.

The policy change, requested by lawmakers, followed years of frustration among elected officials who were trying to get to the bottom of complaints from parents who felt a judge unfairly ruled to have their child removed from their home. Previous rules allowed people to give lawmakers and SRS officials permission to discuss the case, but lawmakers didn’t have access to the actual documents and social workers could decide how much to disclose.

Today, Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said not everyone may be aware of how much information can be disclosed under the new policy. She read portions of the release form out loud to the Joint Committee on Home and Community Based Services Oversight.

It’s probably not necessary for lawmakers to have so much detailed confidential information to understand what happened, she said.

The new release forms include a check box that gives the lawmaker permission to share the case file with anyone else they want.

“We are letting clients give me as a legislator, with limited legal or clinical background, the right to disseminate their personal, private, confidential medical information to anyone I deem appropriate?” Kelly asked SRS Secretary Rob Siedlecki. “I, who have no qualifications to decide whether to do this or not?”

Siedlecki said parents already have the right to give their family’s files to a lawmaker who could share the information with the world. The idea is to help lawmakers, and the form provides added protection, he said.

Kelly said it may be legal, but that doesn’t make it right. “It’s different for a person to be able to do something versus the state to condone it,” she said.

In the past, Kelly said a constituent would complain to her and she would forward concerns to SRS and get a response that included what she needed to know based on specific concerns.

“I didn’t walk out from that conversation with, you know, their personal psychiatric history in detail,” she said. “I didn’t need to. I don’t want to. And I don’t think I should have been able to.”

Angela de Rocha said fewer than 1 percent of the cases for children in state custody have been released to lawmakers.

“Everything we did was at the request of legislators,” she said.

Gary Haulmark, director of legislative affairs for SRS, estimated his office handles 3 to 5 of the release forms a month during the legislative session and about one or two a month during the rest of the year.

After the meeting, Siedlecki said he wants to be able to get information out on controversial cases without exposing some personal information, such as Social Security numbers.

“I want to be open,” he said.