August 14, 2007
FROM: Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the facts presented in your correspondence.
I have received your letter concerning your request for a copy of a report of an investigation initiated by Child Protective Services.
For purposes of clarification, I point out that the functions of the Committee on Open Government involve providing advice and opinions concerning public access to government records, primarily in relation to the state’s Freedom of Information Law. This office does not maintain custody or control of records generally. To seek records under the Freedom of Information Law, a request should be made to the “records access officer” at the agency that you believe would possess the records of your interest. The records access officer has the duty of coordinating an agency’s response to requests to requests.
When a proper request is made, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies must respond to requests. Specifically, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states in part that:
"Each entity subject to the provisions of this article, within five business days of the receipt of a written request for a record reasonably described, shall make such record available to the person requesting it, deny such request in writing or furnish a written acknowledgment of the receipt of such request and a statement of the approximate date, which shall be reasonable under the circumstances of the request, when such request will be granted or denied, which shall be reasonable in consideration of the circumstanced relating to the request and shall not exceed twenty business days from the date of such acknowledgment, except in unusual circumstances. In the event that such unusual circumstances prevent the grant or denial of the request within twenty business days, the agency shall state in writing both the reason for the inability to do so and a date certain within a reasonable time, based on such unusual circumstances, when the request shall be granted or denied.”
If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgment of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, if an agency delays responding for an unreasonable time beyond the approximate date of less than twenty business days given in its acknowledgment, if it acknowledges that a request has been received, but has failed to grant access by the specific date given beyond twenty business days, or if the specific date given is unreasonable, a request may be considered to have been constructively denied [see §89(4)(a)]. In such a circumstance, the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a), which states in relevant part that:
"...any person denied access to a record may within thirty days appeal in writing such denial to the head, chief executive, or governing body, who shall within ten business days of the receipt of such appeal fully explain in writing to the person requesting the record the reasons for further denial, or provide access to the record sought."
Section 89(4)(b) was also amended, and it states that a failure to determine an appeal within ten business days of the receipt of an appeal constitutes a denial of the appeal. In that circumstance, the appellant has exhausted his or her administrative remedies and may initiate a challenge to a constructive denial of access under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Rules.
Next, in general, the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a) through (j) of the Law.
Since you referred to Child Protective Services, of possible relevance is the initial ground for denial, §87(2)(a), which pertains to records that "are specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute." One such statute is §372 of the Social Services Law, which requires that various records be kept by "every court, and every public board, commission, institution, or officer having powers or charged with duties in relation to abandoned, delinquent, destitute, neglected or dependent children who shall receive, accept or commit any child..." Subdivision (4) of §372 states in relevant part that such records:
"shall be deemed confidential and shall be safeguarded from coming to the knowledge of and from inspection or examination or by any person other than one authorized, by the department, by a judge of the court of claims when such records are required for the trial of a claim or other proceeding in such court or by a justice of the supreme court, or by a judge of the family court when such records are required for the trial of a proceeding in such court, after a notice to all interested persons and a hearing, to receive such knowledge or to make such inspection or examination. No person shall divulge the information thus obtained without authorization so to do by the department, or by such judge or justice."
Based on the foregoing, I do not believe that records maintained by entities having duties involving child protective services can be disclosed, unless authorization to disclose is conferred by a court, by the County Department of Social Services or by the NYS Office of Children and Family Services.
Also potentially relevant is §422 of the Social Services Law, which pertains to the statewide central register utilized by an agency having responsibility regarding such matters. Subdivision (4)(A) of section 422 states that reports as well as information concerning those reports are confidential, and may be disclosed only under specified circumstances listed in that statute. One of those circumstances involves disclosures to “ any person who is the subject of the report or other persons named in the report” [§422 (A)(d)]. In addition, subdivision (7) of section 422 states:
“At any time, a subject of a report and other persons named in the report may receive, upon request, a copy of all information contained in the central register; provided, however, that the commissioner is authorized to prohibit the release of date that would identify the person who made the report or who cooperated in a subsequent investigation or the agency, institution, organization, program or other entity where such person is employed or with which he is associated, which he reasonably finds will be detrimental to the safety or interests of such person.”
Based on the foregoing, although a report may generally be available to a parent, those portions that would, if disclosed, identify the source of the report may be withheld to protect that person’s privacy and safety.
Lastly, I note that subdivision (5) of §422 of the Social Services Law generally prohibits the disclosure of reports that have been determined to be unfounded.
I hope that I have been of assistance.