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A Tennessee newspaper investigating the state's Department of Children's Services may have to pay almost $35,000 for public records on deaths or near deaths of children who had contact with the child welfare agency, according to an estimate released by the DCS last week.
The Tennessean earlier this year was engaged in a legal battle with the agency under similar circumstances. The newspaper requested public records on the children from a different time span and was told it would cost $32,000 to obtain copies of those redacted documents. In April, Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy ordered the agency to begin turning over redacted documents from early 2009 to mid-2012, finding that the agency could not use confidentiality expemptions to deflect the newspaper's Freedom of Information request.
But the judge rejected the $32,000 estimate and ruled that the newspaper would pay only a 50-cent photocopying fee for each page produced.
This time, The Tennessean has requested documents spanning an 11-month period beginning in mid-2012. In a letter last week to media coalition lawyer Robb S. Harvey, DCS General Counsel Douglas E. Dimond said that the newspaper would have to pay about $34,953 to cover labor and printing costs. He also said that the new request was not subject to the judge's order on costs.
It is not clear how much the newspaper would pay per page under the DCS's proposal, since Dimond's letter does not indicate how many pages of records the agency would produce.
Anita Wadhwani, a Tennessean reporter working on the investigation, said that the public has an interest in being able to examine the agency's track record. Articles in The Tennessean’s series have called the DCS’s competency into question and highlighted tragedies that the agency failed to prevent, such as the death by overdose of a 17-year-old girl whose family had been monitored by the agency.
“These are records that should be in their computer systems, that should be available to any member of the public who is interested in looking at them anytime,” Wadhwani said of the newspaper's new request. “I just think that to put a price tag like that on records puts them out of reach of pretty much anyone.”
Dimond said that the new estimate was formulated to comply with Tennessee law, not to deter public inquiry.
“We have a tension, obviously, between the public’s right to know – and the newspaper’s right to know, which is no different from that of any individual citizen – and of the sort of undifferentiated right of the taxpayer to guard the expenses,” he said. “We’re not interested in making any money off of it or charging anybody.”
Harvey said that regardless of whether the effect was intended, the $35,000 quote threatens to suppress journalism.
“It is the media coalition’s belief that the cost assessment given to us is neither efficient nor reasonable, which is what the Tennessee public records act requires,” he said. “We definitely believe that the impact of creating substantial cost estimates does discourage future requests, and is a discouragement to this request.”
If the DCS and the media coalition do not agree on a price for producing the new documents, the dispute could be added to a growing list of issues to be resolved in court. Wadhwani said that McCoy had raised concerns about whether the agency redacted too much information from documents already released.
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