A Seattle newspaper just fought a legal battle that many publications would have shied away from, and all in the name of obtaining public records documenting a startling trend in the treatment of those with mental illness in Washington state’s King County. The county, which just paid The Seattle Times over $41,000 in legal fee coverage and public records law violation penalties, made an all-too-common mistake these days with regards to their public record keeping: They tried to keep their public records, um, not public.
Brian M. Rosenthal, a reporter for the paper, wrote a story near the beginning of the year on the concept of “psychiatric boarding” in Washington state. In a nutshell, it refers to the practice of holding psychiatric intake patients for hours or even days in emergency rooms while they await treatment or evaluation. Following the article, Rosenthal received several tips and suggestions from readers on other aspects of mental healthcare he should look into. One of particular interest was an apparent law in which patients who needed treatment would be let go if a caseworker could not get to them within a certain timeframe. In fact, the windows for these discharges were very short – 12 hours, and sometimes as low as 6 if a family member had brought the patient in – which lead Rosenthal to wonder how often these people were dismissed without treatment.
When Rosenthal contacted the relevant King County offices with a public records request, he was informed that records or counts of the number of evaluators who missed their deadlines per year did not exist. He then tried to get other records that might tell part of the story, each time told records did not exist. One of his final requests was to receive any emails discussing the issue. Again, he met a brick wall. That’s when Rosenthal tried a new approach: He submitted the same request for emails to the prosecuting attorney’s office that handled cases associated with the patients. Lo and behold, his requests returned hundreds of pages of relevant communications, communications that the county office had told him did not exist or could not be located. Clearly to The Seattle Times, the county office had either been conducting their record keeping efforts ineffectively or were withholding what should have been publicly available information.
Shortly after this realization, the paper’s lawyer wrote to the county office demanding the public records request be honored on the threat of legal action from the paper. The Times is no stranger to legal suits either, it routinely threatens and sometimes pursues legal action against public and governmental bodies that seal records illegally or make public records difficult to access.
Recently, the county office settled its dispute with the paper, handing over not only the originally requested communications, but also $41,560 in a combined legal fees and penalty payments sum.
Issues that can quickly become an embarrassment for a publicly accountable body are, unfortunately, often hushed up as best as possible in order to avoid image degradation in the public eye. This particular problem happens to affect people in a very real and potentially detrimental way as well; by turning away the mentally ill without the help they really need. Faced with a problem it likely couldn’t afford to fully tackle, the county chose to bury the issue when reporters came knocking, a technique which, at least in this particular case, did not pay off for them.