VII. How Should the Best Interests of the Child Be Balanced Against Need for the Confidentiality of Records in Times of Emergency?

A. Why Is This an Issue?

The child protection system today is a large and interconnected web bringing together stakeholders from the judicial branch, the executive branch, and the public and private sectors. Each stakeholder maintains their own set of records, often in both paper and electronic form. Dependency records, whether from the judicial or executive branch, are predominantly confidential in nature, and confidential clearance is required to view the records. Access can be established through various legal authorities, such as statute, court rule, or a court order. The deciding factor in granting access by court order is whether the requestor has a “legitimate interest” or “direct interest” in the case. The large number of stakeholders from disparate fields with different institutional world views, coupled with the confidentiality of the records, contributes to the complexity of dependency matters, and sometimes contributes to delays in process and decision making.

Rules regarding privacy and confidentiality of records were created for normal situations. How are these affected by widespread emergencies? How does the confidential nature of dependency records affect the quality and timeliness of decisions in dependency matters in times of emergency? What steps can be taken by the juvenile courts in emergency preparedness planning to keep the dependency process and information flow moving as smoothly as before the disaster?

Dependency courts are only one component of this large and interconnected web of child-protection-system stakeholders. All these institutional stakeholders are compiling records, usually confidential in nature, on the child and the family.

 

• Recordkeeping often starts with a child abuse and neglect report lodged with child protective services (CPS).
• This may be followed by a police report and entry into a statewide child abuse registry.
• Then if a petition of abuse and neglect is filed with the juvenile court, that starts the child’s dependency court record containing both a legal and a “social” file.
• Reports from case managers and treatment providers soon fill the social file.
• The legal file grows with subpoena notices, dates and outcomes of hearings, and reports from the guardian ad litem (GAL) and court-appointed special advocate (CASA), along with any evidence submitted to the court.
• In parallel fashion the CPS file is increasing exponentially with case manager notes, home study reports, the child’s school records and medical reports, and reports of the parents’ substance abuse problems and attempts at treatment.
• As the child moves through the dependency process there may be additional reports from foster parents, residential treatment centers, group homes, and public and private adoption agencies.

 

There is an exchange of information between the two branches of government, but the files are not identical and each entity has information, especially confidential information, not shared with the others. (see Hardin, 2001 for a summary of federal laws and regulations governing information sharing in child abuse and neglect cases).

Honorable Ernestine S. Gray

1. Confidentiality Statutes and Rules

(a) Judicial Branch Dependency Records.

Who Has Open Access? A 2003 survey by the National Center for State Courts on dependency-proceeding accessibility also gathered information on court practices regarding public access to dependency records.1 The majority of jurisdictions have closed dependency records, and access may be available through judicial discretion or by statutory or rule exceptions. Their results with a few additions and updates are compiled in Table 1.


Table 1. Public Access to Dependency Court Records
Presumably Open Records, Judicial Discretion to Close
Michigan, Nebraska, Texas

Open Records with Exceptions
Minnesota, Missouri

Presumably Closed Records, Judicial Discretion to Open
Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, West Virginia, Wisconsin

Closed Records with Exceptions
Alaska, District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota

Closed Records in All Cases
California, Delaware, Idaho, Nevada,* New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wyoming

* But court may publicly disclose information contained in the court record.

 

Although public access is restricted, the dependency court record may be available for inspection by parties in the dependency case and their legal counsel without a judicial order. Alabama’s juvenile record confidentiality statute is an example.

 

§ 12-15-100 Filing and inspection of records, etc.

(a) Social, medical, and psychiatric or psychological records, including reports of preliminary inquiries and predisposition studies, of delinquent, in need of supervision and dependent children, including supervision records of such children, shall be filed separate from other files and records of the court and shall be open to inspection and copying, only by the following:

(1) The judge and probation officers and professional staff assigned to serve the court.

(2) Representatives of a public or private agency or department providing supervision or having legal custody of the child. . . .

(6) The parent of the child, except when parental rights have been terminated, or guardian and the counsel and the guardian ad litem of the child.

 

Other persons who are deemed by the court to have a legitimate interest in the court’s records may petition the court for access. For example, Alaska’s juvenile records confidentiality statute defines foster parents as having a legitimate interest in the records of their foster child.

 

AS 47.10.090.Court Records.
(e) The court’s official records under this chapter may be inspected only with the court’s permission and only by persons having a legitimate interest in them. A foster parent is considered to have a legitimate interest in those portions of the court’s records relating to a child who is placed by the department with the foster parent or who the department proposes for placement with the foster parent. Missouri’s dependency records are more accessible in 2006 than they were previously due to the passage of §211.319 RSMo. Dependency pleadings and orders are now publicly accessible.

§211.319 RSMo 3. For juvenile court proceedings . . . , pleadings and orders of the juvenile court other than confidential files and those specifically ordered closed by the juvenile court judge shall be open to the general public.

 

The “nonlegal” information in the social file still requires a court order based on a legitimate interest in the case.

 

For purposes of this section, “confidential file” means all other records and reports considered closed or confidential by law, including but not limited to medical reports, psychological or psychiatric evaluations, investigation reports of the children’s division, social histories, home studies, and police reports and law enforcement records. Only persons who are found by the court to have a legitimate interest shall be allowed access to confidential or closed files. In determining whether a person has a legitimate interest, the court shall consider the nature of the proceedings, the welfare and safety of the public, and the interest of any child involved.

 

In tandem, Missouri’s court rule on juvenile record confidentiality (§122.02 RSMo) was repealed and replaced with an open-records rule for pleadings and orders in all child-abuse-and-neglect and termination-of-parental-rights cases, but not adoption cases, filed after January 1, 2006. The clerk of court is required to redact all identifying information from the pleadings and orders.

 

f. Prior to allowing inspection of any pleadings or orders of the court by the public, the clerk of the court shall redact all information that may identify or lead to disclosure of the identity of any of the following:
(1) any juvenile, except the perpetrator;
(2) any foster or adoptive parents, foster care institutions, or other persons and institutions providing out of home care to any juvenile; and
(3) any reporter of child abuse. . . .

 

Who Does Not Have Open Access? All the stakeholders in the child protection system do not have equal access to the dependency court record without a judicial order when access to confidential records is closed. In a closed-record system only a subset of stakeholders, principally the parties and their legal representatives, have access. Treatment providers (mental health therapists, residential treatment home staff, psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians) are one group that usually must petition the court for access (see Table 2).

 

Table 2. Stakeholder Access to Dependency Court Records

Usually Has Access to Dependency Records

Juvenile judge
Juvenile commissioner
Assistant attorney general/agency attorney
Parent’s attorney
Guardian ad litem
Court-appointed special advocate
Birth parent(s)
Tribe

Usually Does NOT Have Access to Dependency Records Without Judicial Order

Child protective case worker/Case manager
Law enforcement officer
Extended family members
Foster-care review board volunteer
Foster parent
Adoption agency case managers
Group-home staff
Residential treatment center staff
Mental health therapist/Psychologist
Psychiatrist/Physician
Pre-adoptive or adoptive parents
School representative
Media representatives
Foster child


 

(b). Executive Branch Child Abuse and Neglect Records

Similarly, the abuse and neglect records held by executive branch agencies are not open to the public, but people with a legitimate interest may inspect the records with permission of the agency’s director. The example below is from Indiana’s Code.

Ind. Code Ann. § 31-33-18-1 (1998): With regard to child abuse and neglect cases, reports in the possession of the division of family and children, the county office of family and children, or the local child protection service are confidential.

Ind. Code Ann. § 31-39-4-8 (1998): The head of a law enforcement agency or that person’s designee may grant any person having a legitimate interest in the work of the agency or in a particular case access to the agency’s confidential records.

Alaska’s statute specifically mentions guardians ad litem, law en
forcement, legal custodian, foster parent/relative, school officials, and the child abuse reporter among others.


AS 47.10.093. Disclosure of Agency Records.

(a) . . . [A]ll information and social records pertaining to a minor who is subject to this chapter or AS 47.17 prepared by or in the possession of a federal, state, or municipal agency or employee in the discharge of the agency’s or employee’s official duty are privileged and may not be disclosed directly or indirectly to anyone without a court order.

(b) A state or municipal agency or employee shall disclose appropriate information regarding a case to

(1) a guardian ad litem appointed by the court;

(2) a person or an agency requested by the department or the child’s legal custodian to provide consultation or services for a child who is subject to the jurisdiction of the court under AS 47.10.010 as necessary to enable the provision of the consultation or services;

(3) foster parents or relatives with whom the child is placed by the department as may be necessary to enable the foster parents or relatives to provide appropriate care for the child who is the subject of the case, to protect the safety of the child who is the subject of the case, and to protect the safety and property of family members and visitors of the foster parents or relatives;

(4) school officials as may be necessary to enable the school to provide appropriate counseling and support services to the child who is the subject of the case, to protect the safety of the child who is the subject of the case, and to protect the safety of school students and staff;

(5) a governmental agency as may be necessary to obtain that agency’s assistance for the department in its investigation or to obtain physical custody of a child;

(6) a law enforcement agency of this state or another jurisdiction as may be necessary for the protection of any child or for actions by that agency to protect the public safety;

(7) members of a multidisciplinary child protection team created under AS 47.14.300 as may be necessary for the performance of their duties;

(8) the state medical examiner under AS 12.65 as may be necessary for the performance of the duties of the state medical examiner;

(9) a person who has made a report of harm as required by AS 47.17.020 to inform the person that the investigation was completed and of action taken to protect the child who was the subject of the report; and

(10) the child support services agency established in AS 25.27.010 as may be necessary to establish and collect child support for a child who is a child in need of aid under this chapter.


Karen Hallstrom

 

B. Why Is This Issue Important?

1. Importance of Timely Access to Dependency Records

When disaster strikes, whether natural or manmade, the child protection system may be threatened by loss of connectivity, in terms of both electronic systems and manual processes. Timeliness and quality decision making may be compromised when records are inaccessible. The complexity of the child protection system, together with the crucial nature of the process and decisions, make recovery of and access to confidential child protection records even more difficult than for other case-type records. To protect victims of abuse and neglect, timely and quality decisions must continue and not be compromised, even following a disaster. The delivery of access to the stakeholders must be done expediently. Stakeholders should not have to wait while recovery staff step through normal recovery procedures to rebuild the records, such as relocating manual files, buying new hardware, reloading application software, backing up from tape, or reestablishing clearance verification systems and procedures. Stakeholders need a comprehensive record recovery plan that expedites record access beyond normal recovery procedures.

2. Unique Issues Raised by Confidential Records

Confidential records in the child protection system raise unique problems in emergency planning. Recovery staff not only must facilitate access to paper and electronic records in a timely manner, but also must do so lawfully—in accordance with confidentiality requirements. Recovery staff cannot ignore confidentiality requirements or take “short cuts” to provide quick access to stakeholders. They must follow existing law, policy, and procedure—unless special disaster-recovery provisions or contingencies are in place that either deliver immediate access or relax requirements in disasters to deliver access to those who legitimately seek it.

3. Effect on Stakeholders’ Ability to Perform Their Duties

One of the important components of any disaster preparedness plan is to facilitate access to records by stakeholders who legitimately need access. Without prompt and appropriate access to paper and electronic records, stakeholders cannot perform their duties in a timely and quality way. A disaster creates three categories of child protective system stakeholders: stakeholders that are on-site and attempting to carry out their responsibilities under trying conditions; absent stakeholders who are not available to carry out their everyday duties; and new stakeholders whose presence in the child protective system is dictated by the disaster conditions. In addition, the disaster can raise cross-jurisdictional issues with record confidentiality that would not arise under normal conditions.

(a) Absent Stakeholder Issues

The business of dependency courts must continue in spite of disaster conditions, including damage to their physical facilities, and dependency courts may need to proceed without all stakeholders present. Stakeholders may be absent after a disaster due to a change in geographical location for hearings, loss of communications, incapacitation, evacuation, or other reason. However, the absent stakeholders may still be keepers of records that are needed for hearings to proceed or to ensure quality decisions.

 

Scenario 1—The Absent CPS Director. Law enforcement officers investigate a complaint of child neglect and take the children into custody. By federal and state law, a shelter-care hearing in juvenile court must be held within 72 hours after removal from the home. Under normal conditions the juvenile judge’s administrative assistant queries the court’s case management system, informs the judge about any previous abuse and neglect cases involving the family, and pulls the physical file(s) so the judge would be able to review the record before the hearing.

However, due to a recent tornado that destroyed the part of the courthouse housing the closed files and case management system, the query of the database and production of the records is delayed until the information can be downloaded from the backup system located at the administrative office of the courts in another city. And even when the information system is restored, the social files cannot be restored because their information is not part of the state’s daily backup.

The clerk contacts CPS, which is located in a building several blocks away untouched by the tornado, and requests a query of their database or a fax of the documents in their files mentioning any activity involving the family, and if CPS has a record, the court would like a copy of everything in time for the shelter-care hearing. CPS is operating with a skeleton staff because several staff members were affected by the tornado and are out of the office. The CPS supervisor informs the clerk she is not able to query the agency’s database or make a copy of the child’s confidential file because the CPS director and deputy director, who are the only ones with authority to grant outside access to the confidential records, are out of the office and unable to be reached before the scheduled hearing.

 

What could the juvenile court or a collaborative disaster plan have done in advance to avoid finding itself in the situation involving:

 

• the unavailability of the court’s legal files?
• the loss of the social file?
• the unavailability of the CPS director and deputy director to grant access?
• the lack of authority of the CPS supervisor?
• the lack of the court’s authority to issue an order to compel CPS to provide their records to the court?

 

Would the situation be different if CPS had a Continuity of Operations Plan that addressed the continuity of leadership and designated an order of succession and delegation of authority when both the director and deputy director are absent? Could the delay in providing the child’s CPS file to the dependency court be avoided or mitigated?

(b) New Stakeholders

Does a disaster bring new stakeholders into the child protection system? When disaster strikes an area, volunteers from many fields come to the disaster area to lend their skills and expertise to the relief effort. These volunteers include rescue workers, law enforcement officers, medical personnel, construction workers, psychologists, and social workers. Some of these professionals, such as the medical personnel, psychologists, and social workers, are licensed in their home state and have gone through a credentialing procedure that is only valid in their home state.

Most government entities establish credentialing procedures and criteria before authorizing access to confidential records.2 For example, as part of its credentialing procedures, a dependency court may require that all social workers on a case be employed by a state or county welfare agency within that state. For proper identification, the dependency court may require that the social worker present an employment or licensure card from the state. Further, a verification phone call to a human resource officer within the state welfare agency may be part of the dependency court’s credentialing process.


Scenario 2—The Out-of-State Social Worker. A hurricane and subsequent flooding devastates a three-state area. The courts and other government agencies officially open a week later with a skeleton staff because many residents have evacuated or are busy dealing with the aftermath of the disaster. Social workers who are not licensed to work in the host state are brought in from other states to assist. The legal department of CPS is concerned about assigning confidential abuse and neglect cases to the new social workers. The dependency court is leery about extending the same open-access privileges it extends to the state’s own licensed social workers. The juvenile judge is willing to issue an order to both the legal and the social file allowing access on a case-by-case basis if the circuit clerk verifies the person’s credentials. The circuit clerk, as the fiduciary keeper of the records, is concerned about her ability to verify credentials and any possible liability without something more than a court order. Dependency case hearings are postponed until CPS and the court decide the legal course to take.

• What instructions or guidelines should be given to dependency court clerks or administrators to waive credentialing rules?
• What standard should be used when communications may be down and it is not possible to verify a person’s background? For example, if a clerk believes, to the best of his judgment, that the social worker is a legitimate stakeholder, based on the presented request and other discussion, should that be sufficient and protect the clerk from errors that may be made?
• Who should decide when the credentialing rules should be waived? Is the approval of a court administrator or clerk of court or judge needed to waive the confidentiality rules or can a court clerk make that decision?

Although not stakeholders, temporary record-salvage workers are new people brought to the disaster who may encounter confidential records. Is this a security concern? Is there temporary employment or volunteer status under a court or other stakeholder adequate to give them clearance to access the confidential records they are working to salvage? Do they receive adequate training to understand their responsibilities with respect to any confidential records they encounter? There are all issues to be addressed in the disaster plan or other policy, before the disaster occurs.

(c) Cross-Jurisdictional Issues

Jurisdictional boundaries, such as county lines, can be barriers to accessing information during disasters, as courts and criminal-justice entities often operate independently within their own jurisdictions. Traditionally, court clerks have been custodians over their respective county court records, and judges have had authority to issue orders authorizing access to court records within the county. Similarly, law enforcement entities have maintained separate record management systems, without integration and data sharing across county information systems. These “walls” between jurisdictions are beginning to come down, even for confidential information, and courts are beginning to transition from operating on a county-by-county basis to a statewide basis. But until these walls are all gone, they present barriers to the sharing of information.
For example, after a hurricane a teenage girl is living at a Red Cross shelter. The staff suspects she may be a runaway because she is not able to provide identification. She tells the staff she lives with her grandmother because her parents are deceased, but that her grandmother was evacuated to an unknown location. The shelter staff notifies law enforcement and she is placed in shelter care before it is determined that she is a runaway from a neighboring county and her parents want her returned. The girl tells the shelter-care officials that she ran away because her stepfather was beating her. The child welfare agency is involved with the family. How easy is it for the law enforcement officer to access a child-dependency report from a neighboring county to know whether to return the child to her home?

 

Joy Peacock

 

C. Suggestions and Considerations

1. Prepare

Despite the recent federal focus and state efforts on improvements in the child protection system, emergency preparedness has not been included as a component in national court performance improvement programs. For example, the National Center for State Courts’ Trial Court Performance Standards, which were developed in the 1990s, address security issues, but not disaster preparedness. A new level of terrorist awareness has emerged following significant disaster events in the past five years, such as Hurricane Katrina, the 9/11 attacks, and the Great Northeast Power Blackout, and the courts are beginning to think about disaster preparedness planning.
Emergency preparedness planning in the courts is typically done in a generalized way involving the protection and recovery of all case records according to standard procedures. A closer examination of preparedness planning in the context of the child protection system, however, suggests that a higher level of planning should be done, cooperatively, by all institutional stakeholders in the process. Arguably, dependency courts should take the lead in cooperative disaster preparedness because of the statutorily mandated central role the court plays in the child-welfare process in moving the case along to disposition in a timely manner. In addition, court clerks have a long history of fiduciary responsibility for preserving the integrity of the records dating back to the days when judges rode the circuit and the clerk was located in the courthouse as “keeper of the records.”

 

Dependency courts should:
• examine existing record recovery plans and consider the needs of stakeholders to have access to confidential records in the child support system after a disaster;

• instruct information technology professionals, records management professionals, and other disaster recovery planners of special issues in dependency matters and the need for a separate, comprehensive plan to ensure the continuation of timely and quality decisions; and

• work with other institutional stakeholders in the state to ensure that they take the same course and participate in cooperative record-access planning across the state child support system in preparation for disaster.

 

2. Balance Confidentiality Requirements with Exigency Demands

Confidentiality rules serve an important function, i.e., to protect the privacy interests of children and various stakeholders, but other interests may outweigh these privacy interests in the wake of disaster. For example, in times of disaster, protection of a child from abuse and neglect is in the best interests of the child and might outweigh protections of confidentiality. This is not to suggest that we should abandon our regard for confidentiality rules across the board, but we need to recognize that certain exceptions may exist in times of exigency, when both victim protection and confidentiality cannot be accomplished. Dependency courts must act on critical pending matters, even if all regular stakeholders are not available, and confidential records should not be a reason for delay. Stakeholder substitutions and delegation of authority must be allowed in certain circumstances.

3. Borderless World View in Court Record Custodianship

The emergence of statewide court systems and data sharing between county criminal-justice agencies has blurred the lines of record custodianship and, concomitantly, the need for stakeholders to get approval before accessing confidential records. For example, in Minnesota, although county-level court administrators remain the custodians of local records, the state court administrator has recently been identified in Rule 3 of the Rules of Public Access to Records of the Judicial Branch, as the custodian of records in the statewide court automated information system for the purposes of remote and bulk electronic access. Further, in Minnesota, the access of criminal justice entities to confidential court case records has historically been authorized by local court order. As of July 2005, however, a new court rule was promulgated that authorizes statewide access to certain confidential case records, including child protection cases, for many criminal-justice entities:

 

Rule 8 of the Rules of Public Access to Records of the Judicial Branch
Subd. 4. Criminal Justice and Other Government Agencies . . .

(b) Discretionary Authorization for Statewide Access to Certain Case Records. Except with respect to race data under Rule 4, subd. 1(e), Minnesota County attorneys, Minnesota state public defenders, Minnesota state and local corrections agencies, and Minnesota state and local social services agencies may obtain remote and bulk access to statewide case records in MNCIS that are not accessible to the public and are classified as Civil Domestic Violence, Juvenile, and Parent/Child Relationship cases, if the recipient of the records:

(1) executes a nondisclosure agreement in form and content approved by the state court administrator; and

(2) the custodian of the records determines that the recipient has a legitimate business need for the records and disclosure to the recipient will not compromise the confidentiality of any of the records.

 

This new rule has been the basis for providing the stated entities access to certain confidential case records in the statewide court management system. Authorized staff are given login IDs and passwords that allow them to view and search any of the authorized confidential case records, whether or not they are specifically assigned to a case.
The broad authorization given in this rule together with the establishment of login accounts that provide access to statewide records could be helpful in an emergency. If one or several counties experience an emergency, as long as the statewide system is up and running, authorized entities throughout the state can work together to facilitate access to records for stakeholders who need access in an emergency.

4. New Legislation and Court Rules

Laws and court rules can be promulgated to facilitate the sharing of information between agencies and between governmental branches. Child protective stakeholders should work with legislative committees to define the circumstances existing in disasters that warrant a relaxation of confidentiality laws, policies and/or procedures. For example, although in most states a court has authority to issue orders to provide access to information in the court record at the court’s discretion, perhaps it should be established that in disasters a court can issue an order to authorize access to other records held by other stakeholders in the system, including through the backup systems maintained in another state or geographic area. Had a law like this been in existence in Scenario 1—The Absent CPS Director—there would have been no delay for the dependency court in procuring the CPS file of the dependent child.

Juvenile confidentiality statutes and court rules also could contain a “Disaster” or “Emergency” provision, such as:

 

Confidentiality requirements may be waived when they hinder other more important goals of the dependency court, such as identification or protection of a child.

 

The court should provide guidance as to what are “more important goals” to the decision maker, who may not be the judge in the time of crisis. For example, a periodic foster-care review should not trump confidentiality, but an emergency-placement decision involving shelter care should trump confidentiality.

The information-sharing law need not be dependent on an emergency. As mentioned above, Minnesota confidential court case records are open to all stakeholders identified in court rules. Colorado has enacted a statute that allows for sharing paper or electronic dependency records between the judicial and executive branch.

 

Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann § 19-1-303 (1998): The judicial department or any agency that performs services regarding juvenile delinquency and neglect cases may exchange information with other agencies or individuals for purposes of investigations and case management.

 

Also, a Memorandum of Understanding or a Memorandum of Agreement between the stakeholders may be sufficient to foster sharing of confidential information.

Access to confidential records in times of emergency also can be expanded to include noninstitutional stakeholders in the child protective system. Legislative (or court) requirements that participating institutional and private stakeholders are required to implement disaster recovery standards with respect to their records, including immediate access to information systems maintained and updated in a different geographical location, would also mitigate delays in accessing confidential records. For private stakeholders, this type of requirement could be facilitated through professional associations to reduce costs. Confidentiality rules or policies would also require the storage of records in the various back-up systems.

5. Expedited or Waiver of Credentialing of New Stakeholders

Courts and other institutional stakeholders need to plan ahead and prepare policy for emergency credentialing of outside stakeholders. Disaster provisions could spell this out to the most detailed level of guidance possible, leaving fewer decisions to be made at the time of disaster. For example, the disaster policy should clearly state who in the clerk’s office can approve a waiver of normal credentialing requirements and should provide immunity from liability to the clerk who does so. In Scenario 2—The Out-of-State Social Worker—the delay in the dependency case hearings could have been avoided if the court had had a policy on expedited or waiver-of-credentialing procedures.

Another example of credentialing issues that should be waived or expedited in times or emergency is that standard procedure may require an official document be in the file for a stakeholder to get access to a paper file, such as a notice of appearance by an attorney, an appointment of a guardian ad litem by the court, or the designation of a social worker by a welfare agency. Identification is needed to show that the person standing at the counter is the person officially designated in a particular role in the file. In an emergency, the formal designation of a stakeholder may be something that should be relaxed, so a temporary stakeholder or representative of the stakeholder can step in and act without official designation.

6. Integrated Juvenile Justice Systems

Integrated juvenile justice systems, which share juvenile information, require a great deal of planning and work by the stakeholders to come into existence, but the reward is great under normal circumstances, and even better in emergencies. Access to confidential information in the integrated systems can be restricted at many levels. An integrated juvenile justice system may allow retrieval of shared information when an entity’s files are destroyed, lost, or temporarily inaccessible.

An example is the Missouri Juvenile Justice Information System (MOJJIS) that links:


• Juvenile Division of the Circuit Courts
• Department of Social Services
• Children’s Division
• Division of Youth Services
• Family Support Division that includes Child Support Enforcement
• Department of Health and Senior Services
• Department of Mental Health

 

Information shared between the stakeholders includes information that would be contained in the social file and considered confidential, including treatment plans, programs and services the juvenile participated in, worker history, current medications, and substance abuse. However, each agency can decide to restrict its information to a smaller subset to safeguard confidentiality.

7. Technology Solutions

Technology solutions can help mitigate the effects of a disaster. A complete electronic record, together with a comprehensive plan for backup and recovery, can make dependency records available under disaster conditions.

First, stakeholders should keep complete electronic records, which fully mirror paper records, to allow for full electronic recovery of dependency case records. It is not enough for the electronic dependency record to consist merely of data in a case management system. Reports and other documents should also be captured and stored in electronic form—including the psychological, diagnostic, and medical files in the social file. When disaster strikes and access to the records is compromised, the judge cannot afford to wait until the clerk rebuilds the social files by contacting the social service agencies for copies of the information.

Until the time when all court documents are electronically filed and stored, creating a complete electronic case record, courts and other stakeholders should scan paper documents in dependency matters to produce electronic images. Stakeholders may argue that they do not have the time or the money to do this. For example, at least one statewide court technology office has directed juvenile clerks not to scan documents because the central computer system does not have the capacity to store the scanned files. It is shortsighted and dangerous thinking to not scan because of time or expense. Even if not done for other case types, funding and resources must be secured for scanning paper dependency records.

Next, after building a complete electronic case record for all dependency matters, stakeholders should plan for 100% uptime for dependency applications and document access—also known as “24/7/365.” The plan should include replicated data, critical applications, and security policies at a remote “hot site.” This will ensure that the application is up and running, with current data and proper security, as soon as communications can be established from the disaster area or neighboring region. The stakeholder community should pool resources and work together with state government to develop hot sites to service them, when needed.

If hot sites are not achievable, at a minimum, all dependency records should be backed up to one or more remote geographical locations. Although remote data backups may not offer expedited access in a disaster, because applications have to be reloaded and data recovered from the backup media, they will at least preserve the record.