DCF failing to comply with the Massachusetts public records law

Over the weekend, The Boston Globe reported that after it recently became the center of controversy, the Department of Children and Families stopped meeting its obligations under the Massachusetts public records law:

After the state Department of Children and Families came under siege last fall for losing track of a young Fitchburg boy who was later found dead, officials had a telling response: They hunkered down and stopped responding to many requests for information.

Amid a public outcry that finally forced the agency’s leader to resign, DCF only completed four of 14 requests for records filed in January and February by several media organizations, including the Globe, a DCF spokeswoman acknowledged.

The state doesn’t keep statistics on how quickly it typically responds to public records requests, but watchdogs say DCF’s response seems unusually slow even by Massachusetts standards.

“I think what we are seeing here is deliberate foot dragging,” said Thomas Fiedler , dean of Boston University’s College of Communication. “They know that a reporter who is following the story is generally going to have a limited amount of time before the reporter has to move on.”

Fiedler added that it’s not uncommon for government agencies to try to “wait reporters out” or charge fees so high that the writers might drop the request altogether.

DCF spokeswoman Cayenne Isaksen said the agency is trying to respond to all of the outstanding requests but did not explain why it has a backlog.

“The department takes seriously its responsibilities under the Public Records Law,” Isaksen said. In two of the 10 cases, the agency said it was awaiting payment for the records.

I make public records requests on behalf of The Bay State Examiner all the time and I can tell you that this is a major problem. I've made tons of records requests, usually to police departments and district attorney's offices, and it would be easier to tell you the agencies that have complied with the law than those that have failed to do so.

The government agencies I've dealt with almost never respond within the 10 days mandated by state law and many of them will simply ignore records requests unless I appeal to the Supervisor of Records, whose office is responsible for oversight of the public records law. It often takes months to get a response to even a simple request. Sometimes appealing to the Supervisor of Records isn't even enough to get a response.

As the Globe explains, part of the problem is that the law lacks teeth:

Agencies are normally required by law to respond to public records requests within 10 days. But there is no legal penalty for missing the 10-day deadline under the state’s public records law, which is widely considered to be one of the weakest in the nation. Some agencies argue they merely need to send a letter acknowledging they have received the request within the 10-day time frame to comply with the rules.

“The main thing the law lacks is teeth,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, one of several groups looking to strengthen the law. A bill to expand access to public records is currently pending in the House Committee on Ways and Means.

The law absolutely needs to be re-tooled and government employees who refuse to comply need to face serious, personal repercussions. Without anything to back it up, they will just continue to act as though they're above it because, for all intents and purposes, they are.