September 16, 2006 in City

Files gone, histories erased

Benjamin Shors Staff writer
 
Holly Pickett photo

Michael Smith.
(Full-size photo)

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Background and the latest updates

It’s an open secret.

Each year the state’s Department of Social and Health Services destroys thousands of private records about the children once in its care. Preserving the voluminous files of former foster children, state officials argue, would create a massive storage problem.

But the little-known practice can have a profound effect on former foster children – now adults: It erases the official paper trail of their lives inside Washington’s troubled child welfare system.

The state keeps no records of which documents have been destroyed and makes no attempt to contact the former foster children before shredding their files. Six years after the children leave state care, the Children’s Administration destroys the records of those who lived in foster care but weren’t adopted. The administration, which is a branch of DSHS, maintains only those records relating to homes whose licenses have been revoked or denied.

“They absolutely should not be expunging that kind of information,” said Laurie Lippold, public policy director for the Children’s Home Society, a statewide nonprofit advocacy group. “People need to be able to come back and get information on their history. We maintain records forever on people who were adopted. I find it just really horrible that they would be eliminating the history of children in foster care who were never adopted.”

Last year alone, the state agency destroyed dozens of boxes of records but provided no accounting of which records were contained in the boxes, according to state officials familiar with the process. Some of those files, however, contain details on the lives of foster children – reports on where they lived, investigative files, even medical and education records, according to interviews with former foster children, attorneys and state officials.

The records’ destruction and purging, which is permitted under a state policy that cites the need to “allow maximum available filing space,” create obstacles to researching an individual’s past, reuniting former foster children with their caregivers or siblings and establishing facts in both civil and criminal cases.

“This is the record of somebody’s life,” said Tim Farris, a Bellingham attorney who was lead counsel in a class-action lawsuit brought by former foster children against the state. “Without it, you simply extinguish all knowledge and memory of what happened in these years.”

Every year, more than 300 foster children age out of the child welfare system without being adopted.

Officials at the Children’s Administration said they could not locate the monthly “disposition” reports that tally the number of boxes of records destroyed.

But large quantities of documents are routinely being shredded, according to people with knowledge of the practice. A records official with the agency confirmed that in May 2004 alone, the agency destroyed 26 boxes of records.

Over the course of multiple interviews with The Spokesman-Review, state officials conceded that the policy may need review.

This spring, the U.S. Congress ordered states to provide health and education records to foster children when they leave care. But it imposed no restrictions on the destruction of complaints, investigative files or placement records, and the order will not be retroactive.

“It does provide us the opportunity to think more broadly about what is in the best interest of children,” said Deborah Reed, supervisor of permanency and placement services in the Children’s Administration in Olympia.

Allowing a second chance

Last year, state officials acknowledged that they had mistakenly destroyed documents about a former foster parent, Carole Ann DeLeon.

In 1988, DeLeon had been accused of tying up a 12-year-old foster child and leaving her in a basement for 10 hours as punishment for eating three packages of string cheese. A physician found belt marks on the girl’s thighs, rope burns on her wrists and cuts and bruises that indicated she had been repeatedly struck, according to court records in Stevens County.

The state immediately removed the girl from the home. But at some point in the next eight years, state officials destroyed all agency traces of the incident. The account exists today only because the Sheriff’s Department in Stevens County kept its own copy of the agency’s investigative file.

The former foster child, now a 30-year-old woman named Mary Dees, expressed her frustration in an e-mail to The Spokesman-Review.

Dees said the agency’s role is “to protect children like myself at that time and for our future children. There are too many unreliable homes to assume its okay to do away with records.”

According to state policy, the documents should not have been shredded because they contained a founded allegation.

However, the state relies on regional officials to remove important files from the disposition list, and it often relies on the memories of its veteran employees, according to people familiar with the practice.

In 1996, when DeLeon applied for a new foster license, the state quickly approved it. A regional Children’s Administration official said DeLeon would never have received a license to care for children if the state had been aware of the past incident.

The issue re-emerged last year, when 7-year-old Tyler DeLeon died while in Carole DeLeon’s care. Placed in DeLeon’s rural Stevens County home by state social workers and later adopted, Tyler DeLeon died of “severe dehydration” and weighed just 28 pounds at the time of his autopsy.

Carole DeLeon, 51, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder in the death of Tyler. She has also pleaded not guilty to second-degree criminal mistreatment of a second boy in her home.

Missing histories

This spring, Michael P. Smith, a former foster child who was placed in the home of a convicted child molester in the 1970s, spent months trying to find documents in his case.

The state Department of Social and Health Services said it had no records for Smith, though Spokane County Superior Court shows that the agency billed his mother $800.20 for the foster care of her two sons. Smith later found an incomplete record of his personal history in county juvenile court archives, but state officials apparently destroyed the documents related to his case.

“It’s a system designed not in the best interest of the child but in the best interest of the adult,” said Timothy Kosnoff, a Bellevue, Wash.-based attorney. “DSHS is trying to destroy a paper trail for failing to do their job. This is an agency more concerned about protecting itself from liability exposure than it is about protecting privacy.”

State law specifically allows sex abuse victims to seek civil damages decades after the abuse occurred. But it does not require DSHS to keep the records that might prove or disprove the case.

The absence of foster care records complicates civil actions, according to several prominent personal injury lawyers.

“It is generally the only record that exists for these kids,” said Jack Connelly, who handled several lawsuits brought by former residents of the O.K. Boys Ranch in Olympia. “If those records are gone, it’s perhaps good for the state to avoid liability and accountability. But it’s not good for the child in terms of establishing what happened to them.”

Ross Dawson, director of policy and practice improvement for the Children’s Administration, said some former foster children expressed concerns that their private records are maintained too long and details in their personal files may prevent them from receiving state licenses – such as those needed to become a foster parent or child-care worker.

“The alumni group is concerned that the records are available and could be misused for other purposes,” Dawson said. “Others have said to us that we don’t think it’s fair that our whole history is available for other purposes.”

Other states routinely purge records but require longer periods of retention.

Idaho policy requires that the records of foster children placed under the state’s legal guardianship, as well as adopted children, must be maintained permanently.

Records of Idaho infants and toddlers who were temporarily in care may be destroyed, but only after state officials make three documented attempts to contact parents or guardians.

Legislative record

The state’s record retention policy comes under fire virtually every legislative session but with a surprising twist: State legislators have repeatedly called for the agency to more quickly destroy its unfounded reports.

Numerous foster parents have complained that they have been the subjects of unfounded reports of child abuse or neglect – and that those reports prevented them from receiving other child care licenses.

The unfounded reports are the equivalent of asking, “When did you stop beating your wife?” said Sen. Val Stevens, R-Arlington.

“You’re innocent until you’re proven guilty,” Stevens said.

In 1997, Stevens authored Senate Bill 5511 to protect private information and “to safeguard (foster parents) against arbitrary, malicious, or erroneous information or actions.” Stevens pushed the state to maintain files only if child abuse or neglect had been found by “clear and convincing evidence.”

The bill, which passed almost unanimously, instructed the department to destroy the files that contained unfounded allegations after six years.

The statute required that the agency attempt to locate the subject of the report – typically the accused foster parent – but not the former foster child.

Former Gov. Gary Locke approved the bill on May 7, 1997, but vetoed a section that would have required the agency to issue annual reports on the number of files or reports that had been purged.

The veto, Locke wrote, was part of his effort to “rid state government of unnecessary reports and paperwork.”

Technological advances have undermined the argument that the state lacks the storage space to maintain the files, opponents of the policy said.

At the State Digital Archive at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, more than 200 billion pages of text can be stored. Laid side-to-side, the pages would stretch around the earth’s equator more than 1,000 times.

The $15 million facility, which opened in 2004 and is managed by the Washington secretary of state’s office, created an international stir among archivists, in part by demonstrating that a massive collection could be stored and maintained in a relatively small space.

“The size is dropping and so is the cost of storage,” said Steve Excell, assistant secretary of state for Washington. “We always joke that in a few years you’ll be able to carry around a USB port with your entire history on it.”


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