Investigator exposes public records issues with private organizations in Florida

Jan 25, 2014

A foster care facility in central Florida could lose several thousand dollars in public funding because they have a pattern of failing to provide basic public records. It’s unclear at this point whether it is merely a minor glitch or part of a much bigger problem.

A member of a nonprofit organization went in to the foster care site to investigate. The office, Community Partnership for Children, was not targeted especially. This special investigator goes around the state routinely making public records requests. In this case, he has wanted to view and take pictures of the organization’s insurance coverage verification – a document that should be released with a public records request.

When he walked to the service desk, a staff member instructed him to sign in. Since Florida law does not obligate an individual to show ID for a public records request, he refused to sign in and after a short discussion with the staff, he was told that he had to sign in to look at the documents. He said “no” once more, and after being told again that he needed to give his name and sign in, he walked out of the office without the records he had requested.

Four days after he left their offices, he made a civil complaint against the organization, and he again requested the records, and he also asked for the costs and expenses he incurred.

He said that what happened to him was not unusual, but that it was very common. He went on to say that people should be alarmed because there is an excessive amount of privatization going on in Florida because so many public records that are now being controlled by private companies.

Florida’s Sunshine Law has some of the toughest standards in the nation when it comes to public agencies and the public’s right to access those records. The right to access those records doesn’t just apply to government agencies, though. It reaches out to private companies that have contracts with the state government to provide those services.

Even though Community Partnership for Children is not an official state agency, it does do a state function, and it is paid with tax dollars from the state. This means that the organization is held accountable under the open records laws in the state.

Even though access to records is required by the constitution of the state, the Partnership for Children said that its policy making all guests sign was not meant to hinder access, but rather to offer an enhanced security level for an organization that is often compelled to call the police to deal with family members who are angry when a child is removed from a parent.

The executive director of the organization said that the staff is threatened on an ongoing basis and that at least once monthly – on average – the police have to be called in.

The staff was instructed to make everyone sign in, and the executive director has since notified the staff to get a manager to help anyone who wants to make a public records request.