Judge dismisses news organizations’ lawsuit seeking disclosure of child-abuse hotline statistics for state-licensed facilities

By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director

A judge Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit brought against a state agency by 9NEWS and The Colorado Sun, ruling that a statute prohibits the disclosure of aggregate child-abuse hotline statistics sought by the news organizations for certain state-licensed residential facilities.

Because the street addresses of the facilities are publicly known, it might be possible — “put together with other information” — to identify a specific caller from a facility, said Denver District Court Judge Darryl Shockley. “In the format (the hotline numbers) are being requested at this point in time, the court is finding that they do come under the statute, which prohibits the department from giving out this information.”

The Colorado Department of Human Services (DHS) cited the Children’s Code provision in response to Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) requests made by Sun reporter Jennifer Brown and 9NEWS reporter Jeremy Jojola for child-abuse hotline calls made over the past three years from the Mount St. Vincent, Cleo Wallace and Tennyson Center residential facilities. The law bars the release of reports of child abuse or neglect and the name and address of any child, family member or informant contained in such reports.

(Credit: 9NEWS video)

The news organizations, represented by attorney Steve Zansberg, argued in their complaint that disclosing the number of hotline phone calls made from the facilities “cannot, in any way, lead to the identification of any child who was subject to alleged abuse or neglect, nor to the identification of any ‘informant’ who placed such a call.”

But an assistant attorney general who represents DHS contended that the statute’s “plain language protects the address of any child reported to be the subject of abuse or neglect … The fact that numerous children reside in a (facility) without parents does not make the statutory protection of their confidentiality any less applicable.”

Shockley suggested there is a way the requested information “can be produced and given to and used by TEGNA (the parent company of 9NEWS) and The Colorado Sun that would not be in violation of the statute.”

But Zansberg told the judge that a cumulative number — adding the hotline statistics for multiple facilities — “would not provide for meaningful analysis” by the news organizations. Their interest, he said, is “in monitoring the conduct of government officials in fulfilling their official duties.”

Zansberg, who is president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, noted that the Office of Colorado’s Child Protection Ombudsman had disclosed the number of reports of suspected abuse or neglect at El Pueblo Boys & Girls Ranch, a center for children with severe behavioral and psychiatric problems that closed in 2017. The ombudsman also disclosed the number of complaints about Tennyson Center in 2020.

Only a few of those calls were deemed credible, Zansberg said. “The reporting that my clients are interested in doing is to look at the performance of the Department of Human Services and the local agencies that receive these hotline calls on a center-by-center basis. For them to receive a cumulative number of calls for three centers would not allow for that type of coverage.”

Recent stories by The Sun and 9NEWS focused on failings of the system that is supposed to protect and treat vulnerable foster children and youths with severe mental health issues.

Zansberg said the news organizations will consider appealing the judge’s ruling.

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