Oklahoma court grants media limited access to state foster care records

Emily Miller | Freedom of Information | News | May 29, 2012

An Oklahoma appeals court on Friday affirmed a lower court’s decision to grant the media limited access to state agency records regarding foster parents in 14 counties.

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) must provide names, birth dates and addresses of foster parents -- otherwise confidential information -- to the World Publishing Company and KOKI Fox 23 News for the sole purpose of determining whether foster parents are convicted felons.

KOKI previously obtained information that at least two children in DHS’s custody were placed with a foster parent who was a convicted felon -- a violation of state law.

As a result, KOKI filed an open records request with the DHS seeking “records containing the name, birth date and county of residence for all existing and available foster parents for [DHS],” according to the opinion.

DHS denied the request, and the news station ultimately sued under a provision in the Oklahoma Children's Code, which states that a court may authorize the release of confidential records if "a compelling reason exists" and if such release "is necessary for the protection of a legitimate public or private interest.”

A lower court found that the public's right to know whether the agency was properly placing children is a compelling reason for release of the information. The appeals court agreed.

DHS contended that the disclosure of such information would hinder the agency's "efforts to recruit and retain foster parents," according to the opinion. The agency also argued releasing the names of the foster parents could indirectly expose the identities of children and families involved in the welfare system and would place "foster parents in potential danger from disgruntled biological parents and relatives."

“The safety of foster parents and the children they care for is our primary concern,” said Sheree Powell, communications director for DHS, in an interview.

However, the court stated that in light of the limitations placed on the media's use of the information by the lower court, DHS's concerns were mere "speculation."

If the media discovers cases in which a child has been placed with a convicted felon, then that information may be publicly disclosed after conditions established by the trial court are met, the court ruled. For example, the media outlets must "notify[] DHS prior to publishing to permit it an opportunity to provide the foster parent's application date and/or the foster home's closing date and to comment on the story," according to the opinion.

"The court narrowed the way the information can be used and that should help protect the children," Powell said.

Powell said the media originally wanted the names, addresses and birth dates of all foster parents in Oklahoma, but the parties agreed to limit the access to include only information about foster parents in the northeastern part of the state. Powell also said that the media outlets' use of the information cannot extend to an investigation of “just any kind of criminal background."

"The court narrowed it to felony convictions of a certain type," she said. These include assault, battery, drug offenses, child abuse or neglect, domestic abuse, a crime against a child or a violent crime.

DHS has 20 days to decide if they want to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court, Powell said.

In a companion opinion issued the same day, the court reversed the lower court's order to grant KOKI and World Publishing Company attorney's fees and costs under the state Open Records Act.

The court could not award the winning parties attorney's fees under the Act because the suit was filed under the Children's Code rather than the state open records law which provides for the possibility to recoupment fees.

Counsel for KOKI and World Publishing could not be reached for comment.

Both opinions were designated "not for official publication," and therefore do not have precedential value under state court rules.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Oklahoma - Open Government Guide