Advocates sound alarm over proposed limits on abuse reports

Bill pending in Senate would put some records off-limits to public

UNCOVERING ABUSE AGAINST people with disabilities may become more difficult, advocates worry, under a provision tucked into a seemingly innocuous bill slated for a vote in the state Senate on Thursday.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. John Keenan, modernizes language about people with disabilities in state law. But it also contains a section that limits the extent to which files maintained by the state’s Disabled Persons Protection Commission will be considered public records.

The commission, which proposed the change, says it is just codifying current practice. “We don’t see this as in any way a sea change at the agency,” said Andrew Levrault, assistant general counsel at the DPPC.

But some advocates for people with disabilities say the change could give the commission more authority to withhold information about abuse investigations. “These are people who don’t have voices to begin with, and now it feels to me like an even further silencing of those voices, of these stories, and their stories deserve to be heard and told,” said Anna Baglaneas Eves, a parent advocate from Rockport.

The DPPC is a state agency tasked with protecting adults with disabilities from abuse by their caregivers. It receives reports of abuse, investigates allegations, ensures protective services are put in place and provides training and education.

Currently, the agency will release investigative documents, like reports of abuse, but will redact personally identifiable information, like the names of alleged victims.

The bill says “all confidential or personally identifiable information that is created, collected, used, maintained or disseminated” by the DPPC will not be a public record.

Levrault said the agency is merely “looking to clarify current operating procedures.” He said the DPPC would continue to provide the same types of records as it does today, redacting personally identifying and confidential information. He said “confidential” information is information deemed confidential elsewhere in state law – for example, hospital records, criminal records or client records from departments that serve people with disabilities or mental illness. “We can’t put a stamp on something and say it’s confidential,” he said, dismissing concerns that the agency might apply the designation too broadly.

DPPC is also trying to make the language consistent with a new law establishing a confidential registry of caregivers who have abused people with disabilities.

But Eves said the agency already denies any public records request that uses a person’s name – either the victim or the abuser – to maintain confidentiality. She worried that the word “confidential” could be applied at the commission’s discretion to cover a wide range of documents, such as complaints called into their hotline or investigative reports. “To me, it’s very concerning,” she said of the bill. “I don’t understand why this is necessary.”

Dave Kassel, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Coalition of Families and Advocates, is worried that the commission could apply the bill’s language to restrict access to a wide swath of investigative records. “Confidential information is basically anything that they say is confidential,” Kassel said.

Kassel, who has at time tangled with the DPPC over public records, said the proposed language “makes it even more secretive.”

An earlier version of the bill said “all records containing confidential or personal data” would not be considered public records.

Rick Glassman, director of advocacy for the Disability Law Center, said his group opposed that language because it could have shielded all investigative documents that contained any personal information. Glassman said his organization does not have a problem with the updated language, since documents will remain public with redactions, similar to under current law.

But, Glassman said, “the process of writing regulations will be important,” and the center will be looking at those regulations.

Glassman said a lot of information about personal care of individuals with disabilities is sensitive and should be confidential. But he said there is a need to make sure broader issues like the effectiveness and quality of services and the potential for abuse can be addressed.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr filed an amendment that would eliminate the public records provision in the bill. Another amendment by Tarr would clarify that information can only be withheld “to the extent necessary to protect the identity of persons and confidential personal information.”