TOPEKA — Parents of children in the foster care system may not realize how much of their detailed personal information could be widely disseminated when they sign a release that grants lawmakers access to their case files, Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said Wednesday.
The forms, developed earlier this year at lawmakers' request, allow parents to release files to legislators that could include narratives of alleged abuse, medical files, psychiatric evaluations, drug tests, court records, credit history and payment history, among other things. It also gives them the option of checking a box that gives the lawmaker permission to share the file with anyone they see fit.
"We are letting clients give me as a legislator, with limited legal or clinical background, the right to disseminate their personal, private, confidential medical information to anyone I deem appropriate?" Kelly asked Rob Siedlecki, secretary of the department of social and rehabilitation services. "I, who have no qualifications to decide whether to do this or not?"
Siedlecki, who was taking question from the joint committee on home and community based services oversight, said any parent could bring their case file and other personal history to a lawmaker and give permission to share it with the world. He said the form was created at lawmakers' request to help them learn more about the cases their constituents have complained about.
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"I think it's wrong, and I find it hard to believe that it's legal," Kelly said. "But I certainly find it hard to believe that it's either necessary or appropriate for us to be doing this and I would like some serious conversation to go on about this."
Earlier this year, SRS loosened its records policy at the request of lawmakers to allow parents whose children are now in the foster care system to sign a one-page release form that gives a select House or Senate member access to their family's case file.
Previous rules allowed people to give lawmakers and SRS officials permission to discuss the case, but lawmakers didn't have access to the actual documents and social workers could decide how much to disclose.
In the past, Kelly said a constituent would complain to her and she would forward concerns to SRS and get a response that included what she needed to know based on specific concerns.
"I didn't walk out from that conversation with, you know, their personal psychiatric history in detail," she said. "I didn't need to. I don't want to. And I don't think I should have been able to."
It's probably not necessary for lawmakers to have the entire case file and detailed personal information to understand what happened, Kelly said.
It is legal, but that doesn't make it right, she said. "It's different for a person to be able to do something versus the state to condone it," she said.
Angela de Rocha said less than 1 percent of the cases for children in state custody have been released to lawmakers.
"Everything we did was at the request of legislators," she said.
Gary Haulmark, director of legislative affairs for SRS, estimated his office handles three to five of the release forms a month during the legislative session and about one or two a month during the rest of the year.
After the meeting, Siedlecki said he wants to be able to get information out on controversial cases without exposing some personal information, such as Social Security numbers.
"I want to be open," he said.