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High court expands access to family services records

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    News Media Update         FLORIDA         Freedom of Information    

High court expands access to family services records

  • The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the public has the right to seek access to confidential records maintained by the Department of Children and Families through local county courts, not just courts in Tallahassee.

Feb. 18, 2004 — Public access to Department of Children and Families records can be requested from county courts statewide, not just courts in Tallahassee, the Supreme Court of Florida ruled earlier this month.

Before the high court’s unanimous decision Feb. 5, only Tallahassee courts had the authority to release Department of Children & Families documents. The court’s ruling means requesters can now seek access to confidential records by filing motions in county courts anywhere in the state.

The court said county courts should be give discretion — “guided by considerations of justice, fairness and convenience under the circumstances of the case” — when contemplating requests for records.

“Such inquiries could be conducted most efficiently in the county in which the records are maintained and the DCF personnel familiar with the records, as well as the interested parties, are located,” the court held.

Under Florida law, children’s records are confidential unless a finding of good cause merits unsealing the documents.

David Bralow, attorney for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, which brought the suit, told The Associated Press in a Feb. 10 story that the ruling is “one of the great victories for public records.”

“It makes no sense to make people go to Tallahassee to get public records relating to kids in Miami or Palm Beach,” he said, according to the AP.

Permitting local judges to determine when to open confidential records could be expensive for the state, the Department of Children & Families argued, because additional lawyers would have to be hired in each county.

The case originated from a request by the Sun-Sentinel for the disclosure of documents from state officials in Palm Beach County in relation to a case in West Palm Beach County. The newspaper alleged that the current system facilitated the hiding of records, but the court rejected that claim.

Nonetheless, open record advocates say the ruling will likely extend far beyond the Department of Children & Families.

“The principles [in the decision] would be applicable to any public records case, Bralow said. “It makes it easier for us to pursue our rights.”

(Department of Children & Families, State of Florida v. Sun-Sentinel, Inc.; Media Counsel: David S. Bralow, Tribune Company Legal Department, Orlando, Fla.) AB

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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