Court: Citations for Abuse of Mentally Ill and Developmentally Disabled Must Be Released

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February 19, 2015; San Francisco Chronicle

This story is another example of the importance of investigative journalism to the health of a community and the rights of citizens.

Three years ago, the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) started publishing a series of articles in the San Francisco Chronicle about the abuses visited on patients at institutions serving people with mental illness and developmental delays. In pursuit of that story, CIR requested records related to citations for abuse issued by the Department of Public Health to seven different institutions. But what it received in return were 55 citations with almost every scrap of information—well beyond anything that would identify the patient—redacted.

This article provides an example of how much information was excluded. One document, for example, reflected that one institution “violated its duty of ‘protection of clients’ rights.’ A copy of the actual citation, obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting from a confidential source, reported that one-third of the patients in a unit at the Sonoma Developmental Center suffered injuries that indicated they had been shocked with Taser guns, the court said.”

Now, a unanimous ruling by the California State Supreme Court has decreed that the complete records of violations must be released, with only the patients’ names deleted.

While the Department of Public Health had maintained that a 1967 state law required treatment records to be kept confidential, the court referenced a 1973 law that guaranteed public access to citations for wrongdoing at state long-term care centers.

Justice Goodwin Liu wrote for the court that failing to require full disclosure would interfere with the prevention of future violations, which requires a specificity in reports.

For a better look at the range of investigative reporting done by CIR, look here.—Ruth McCambridge