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Child abuse reports are public records when created by police

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    News Media Update         OHIO         Freedom of Information         Jan. 24, 2005    

Child abuse reports are public records when created by police

  • Documents about two child abuse investigations must be publicly released — with redactions –because they were created by police, not a social services agency, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled.

Jan. 24, 2005 — In a victory for the Akron Beacon Journal, the city police department must disclose two child abuse reports under open records law, although the Ohio Supreme Court’s December ruling permitted heavy redactions. Had the reports been written solely by a children services board and not the police, they could have been completely suppressed.

The disputed documents concern a police officer’s alleged abuse of a young boy during a mock arrest, requested by the boy’s mother in 2001 to scare him into better behavior. In 2002 in the same Ohio county, two 14-year old boys allegedly raped a young girl. Both episodes were initially reported to the local children services board, which is a government agency that prevents and protects abused and neglected children. Ohio law requires that the boards write an investigatory report for every report of child abuse.

In Akron, the children services board has delegated its investigative responsibility to the police department in cases where abuse is allegedly committed by someone outside the family. The police intimidation and child rape incidents fell into this category, so the police handled their investigations and wrote corresponding reports.

The Journal asked the police department for the reports. Police released snippets of the police intimidation report, but completely withheld the child rape report. To justify its withholdings, the department cited an open records exemption shielding children services boards’ child abuse reports from mandatory disclosure.

The police department’s reliance on the law was misplaced, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled, because the exemption applies only to reports created by children services boards. However, the court conceded that the police could redact portions of the reports that incorporated any preliminary work the children services board did when it fielded initial phone calls reporting the incidents.

Because a child’s name was likely to be revealed during any first reports of abuse to the children services board, it was likely to be protected by the proposed redaction. The court remarked that “this construction of the child-abuse-investigative-report exemption is consistent with the abused child’s mother’s interest in publicizing the general facts concerning [abuse] to alert people in the neighborhood and help apprehend the perpetrators while simultaneously safeguarding the child’s identity.”

(State ex rel Beacon Journal Publishing Company v. Akron; Media Counsel: Karen C. Lefton and Edward G. Kemp; Akron, Ohio)RL

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