A mother and father can't access most information the District's juvenile justice agency has on their children, the city's highest court has ruled.
The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by two parents who cited open-records laws in asking
that the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services turn over all documents pertaining to the parents and their five children. Two of their children had been committed to DYRS in 2005 and were released in May 2007, "apparently without any prior notice" to the parents, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruling said.
When the parents filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the documents, DYRS and then the mayor's office turned the parents down. The Court of Appeals also ruled the parents could not have access to the documents. Not only does FOIA give parents "no greater rights than anyone else," but District law also does not include "parents in the list of persons for whom the confidentiality of these records is excepted."
The parents have no legal right to the bulk of the information they wanted, said at-large Councilman Phil Mendelson. He recently pushed legislation through the council that makes it easier for government agencies to share information about children, but the law does not include new rights for parents.
"The law is very specific as to what can be released and to whom," Mendelson said.
The city does give parents limited access to court records, but goes no further. One reason for that, Mendelson noted, is that DYRS gains custody -- and parents lose it -- when a child enters the system.
But the public needs access to the information inside the sealed records to hold government agencies accountable, said Matt Fraidin, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia who focuses on child welfare issues.
Last year, The Washington Examiner reported that Shelby Lewis, a pimp who operated in Maryland and D.C., gained custody of a 12-year-old girl and then sold her into prostitution. The records on how the girl ended up in Lewis' custody are sealed. Lewis was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Nov. 1.
Parents -- and the public -- "ought to be able to know why government agencies make decisions that dramatically and profoundly affect their lives and their children's lives," Fraidin said.