The Freedom of Information Act1 requires that "actions taken by public agencies be taken openly and their deliberations be conducted openly and that the record of all public agencies be open to the public except in those instances where superior public interest requires confidentiality."2
The general rule under the Act is that all public records of a public agency are open to the public unless the records are exempted by FOIA or their disclosure is prohibited by another federal or state law.3
What is a public agency?
What is a public record?
What records are exempted from the rule of disclosure?
FOIA is a complex law with numerous court interpretations of its application. The following is only a brief description of the parts of the law most relevant to records pertaining to children and families.
WHAT IS A PUBLIC AGENCY?
"Public agency" is defined in principal part as "any executive, administrative or legislative office of the state or any political subdivision of the state and any state or town agency, any department, institution, bureau, board, commission, authority or official of the state . . . ."4
Whether a hybrid public/private entity falls within this definition is determined on a case-by-case basis. "The key to determining whether an entity is a government agency or merely a contractor with the government is whether the government is really involved in the core of the program."5
WHAT IS A PUBLIC RECORD?
"Public record" is defined as "any recorded data or information relating to the conduct of the public's business prepared, owned, used, received or retained by a public agency. . . ."6
WHAT RECORDS ARE EXEMPTED FROM THE RULE OF DISCLOSURE?
There are numerous exemptions, some more general than others.7
For example, one exemption is for "preliminary notes and drafts" if the public interest in withholding such documents outweighs the public interest in disclosure, while another exempts "test questions, scoring keys and other examination data used to administer a licensing examination, examination for employment or academic examinations." The latter is more clear cut, while the former is open to interpretation and will be construed narrowly in favor of disclosure.8
The following exemptions are most relevant to matters involving children and their families.
There is a blanket exemption for anything granted confidentiality by another law. This would include, for example, child
protection records held by DCF.
The Commission has no authority to order the disclosure of any of these records, though it may have the authority to determine whether a particular record held by DCF comes within the statutory meaning of child abuse report.9
Government employees are protected from the disclosure of their "personnel or medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute an invasion of personal privacy."10
If any agency receives a request for a document that might come under this exemption, the
employee must be notified that someone is requesting their information.
If the person does not object, the agency may disclose the information.
If the person does object on grounds of
privacy, the agency must deny the request and the requestor can then seek a ruling from the
Records of law enforcement agencies compiled
in connection with the detection and
investigation of crime are protected if their disclosure would
not be in the public interest.12
The applicability of FOIA to the Judicial Branch and court records is limited to the administrative functions of the branch13 which consists of "activities relating to its budget, personnel, facilities and physical operations."14
This means that FOIA does not apply to the adjudicative records of the
Judicial Branch. However, the courts adhere to the long tradition of providing public access to court proceedings and records.
Note: This limitation on FOIA also applies to the Public Defender Services Commission15 and the Division of Criminal Justice.16
Public schools are subject to the mandated disclosure requirements of FOIA, but two exemptions protect information concerning students. The names or addresses of students enrolled in any public school or college may not disclosed without the consent of the student, if over eighteen years of age or older, or the parents of a student who is younger than eighteen years of age.17
The other exemption makes disclosure under FOIA consistent with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), so that if FERPA doesn't require disclosure, then FOIA doesn't.18
See Confidentiality Provisions of FERPA.
Records of teacher performance evaluations are protected, but reports of teacher misconduct are disclosable as public records. Generally the two types of reports are distinguished by whether the teacher was disciplined.
If so, the information comes under the heading of teacher misconduct rather than performance evaluation.19
Adoption records are exempted from the disclosure requirements of FOIA.20