November 28, 2012
Vol: 19 No: 48

News

DSHS fined for failing to provide records to investigative reporter

By Aaron Burkhalter , Staff Reporter

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The Washington State Superior Court ordered the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to pay $50,000 to The Seattle Times for failing to fully respond to a 2009 public records request for an investigation into abuse and neglect in adult family homes.

DSHS settled with The Seattle Times to end a lawsuit over the request, which stemmed from the award-winning three-part series, “Seniors for Sale.”

As part of the settlement, DSHS released all the requested records and agreed to pay an additional $49,000 to The Seattle Times for attorney fees.

In September 2009, Reporter Michael Berens requested any correspondences, including emails, from DSHS’s Aging and Disability Services Administration employees related to “rebalancing,” a cost-saving program that shifts Medicaid seniors from nursing homes into low-cost adult family homes, which are not equipped to handle high-needs patients.

Berens received only a partial response from DSHS. In December 2009, DSHS sent some emails to The Seattle Times and said the remaining emails were forthcoming.

The “Seniors for Sale” series began in January 2010, and DSHS did not send what it said were the final batch of emails until February 2010.

Moreover, the emails appeared incomplete. The records represented emails from just seven employees, despite the fact that the Aging and Disabilities Administration employs 345 people. The names of dozens of employees who worked on the rebalancing program did not appear in the records provided, according to the lawsuit.

A number of records appeared to be missing, as there was a gap in emails spanning nine months in 2005, even though the rebalancing program had begun that year.

In September, after The Seattle Times sued, DSHS finally satisfied the records request. According to DSHS, the records provided to the newspaper included 160,000 pages of emails from 100 employees. DSHS said the records took at least 1,500 working hours to collect.

Why so long?

According to the lawsuit, DSHS explained the delay to newspaper staff by saying that rather than doing a database search, administrative workers approached employees personally and made searches of their computers.

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