Child abuse investigations confidential, parents need good cause to view certain records

In a per curiam opinion issued yesterday, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that a parent cannot access records of a child abuse investigation conducted by a children services agency absent a showing of good cause. The mother in the case before the court filed a mandamus action against Franklin County Children Services seeking records relating to her minor daughter. Plaintiff-mother Stephanie Clough requested the records when the agency changed its disposition of a child abuse case from "unsubstantiated abuse" to "indicative of abuse." The FCCS refused, finding that she did not show good cause to release the records.

Clough argued that a board policy adopted by the agency allowed her to review all agency documents in the presence of a FCCS worker, without restriction, and that their refusal to allow her to see the records violated her legal rights. The Court found that in order to succeed on her mandamus action, Clough would have to prove that she was entitled to obtain the records by clear and convincing evidence, and that she did not meet this burden.

The Court first analyzed her request for records under the FCCS policy, as Clough did not assert that she was entitled to them as public records. The Court found that the policy itself prohibited disclosure of records if it was prohibited by law and that ORC 2151.421(H)(1) required the records to remain confidential. The Court went on to state that even if the policy had not expressly made this restriction, however, it could not trump the existing law. The Court further found that even for parts of the record not deemed strictly confidential under this statute, the person seeking the records must show good cause to obtain them, which Clough did not do. The Court described circumstances that might amount to good cause, such as when a parent's right to a fair trial could be compromised, or when a child was potenitally in a specific danger, but found that Clough did not make any claims that rose to this level.

The Columbus Dispatch and Court News Ohio have both also reported on this case. The online docket is available, here.

Photo credit: Casey Marshall via Flickr.