Sunshine laws are like a journalist’s bread and butter.
They help us preserve democracy. They help us expose corruption. They allow us to examine and inform the American electorate.
I love sunshine laws.
However, there are always, always, ALWAYS exceptions. Some exceptions are just bullshit, but some exceptions are legitimate concerns, and I think it’s all too easy to point the finger at government and immediately conclude that corrupt politicians are hiding something when really, there are more logical and less obvious reasons to withhold information for public consumption.
Case in point: There’s a huge fuss in my state over the department of family services withholding case files for a young girl in foster care who died as a result of severe abuse. There is evidence to suggest that the department had received multiple alerts from teachers and other adults who suspected what had gone on, but the department had done nothing to protect the child. The department is also fighting like hell to keep the public from viewing the records of the case.
So here’s the deal: What happened to that girl was absolutely horrible. I detest child abuse just as much as the next person, if not more. And if the coverage is to be believed, the department should be held responsible for not doing its job.
BUT (and bear with me) there is a logical explanation for why they refuse to turn over the girl’s records.
Some background. Before I got this job, I worked as a reporter in a neighboring state, and one of my pet projects was foster care. I learned everything there was to to learn about the system and the laws of that state short of becoming a foster parent myself. I hung out with foster parents for 12 hours a day. I talked to kids both in and out of the system. I listened to more terrible stories than I care to remember. I became somewhat of an expert on all of the laws and issues regarding childcare in that state, and I came to have a healthy respect for those laws. Mostly, the laws sought to protect the privacy of the children in the system. I couldn’t publish photos of a foster kid. I couldn’t even take a photo of a foster kid. I also couldn’t print their names. Here’s an example of why.
Imagine you’re a foster kid. You’ve been with your foster parents for three weeks and it’s been a huge adjustment. You’re living with strangers. You’re dealing with household rules for the first time in your life. You’re at a completely new school where the kids bully you and make fun of you all the time because you’re new and you’re also a little weird because your mom was a meth addict who died before you were six, and your dad used to beat you with a broomstick for fun. He also failed to feed you properly, so you’re skinny, and your joints are all knobby. Your clothes don’t help much with your popularity—your shirt is 10 sizes too big for you because the state doesn’t give your new parents enough to take care of you, so all they can afford to dress you in is your older foster siblings hand-me-downs. And the local paper just printed your photo and name on the front page, identifying you as a foster kid. That’s going to go over really well with the bullies on the playground. Not to mention, your father’s out on bail and now he can find where you live and take you back. What do you do now?
It’s a very real concern, keeping foster children anonymous. It’s not just because the state likes to keep secrets: It’s for the children’s protection.
Now, you may be thinking, “But Carla! That poor girl’s already dead because of state secrets! There’s no use protecting her anonymity any more!” And you’d be right.
But releasing her records sets a dangerous precedent. After it happens once, who’s to say that they shouldn’t do it every time, regardless of whether or not the foster child is alive or dead? It would snowball into a huge clusterfuck. The department has to draw the line somewhere.
In conclusion, sunshine laws are important for holding government accountable. But exceptions are also important for keeping children safe.