After the state Department of Children and Families came under siege last fall for losing track of a young Fitchburg boy who was later found dead, officials had a telling response: They hunkered down and stopped responding to many requests for information.
Amid a public outcry that finally forced the agency’s leader to resign, DCF only completed four of 14 requests for records filed in January and February by several media organizations, including the Globe, a DCF spokeswoman acknowledged.
The state doesn’t keep statistics on how quickly it typically responds to public records requests, but watchdogs say DCF’s response seems unusually slow even by Massachusetts standards.
“I think what we are seeing here is deliberate foot dragging,” said Thomas Fiedler , dean of Boston University’s College of Communication. “They know that a reporter who is following the story is generally going to have a limited amount of time before the reporter has to move on.”
Fiedler added that it’s not uncommon for government agencies to try to “wait reporters out” or charge fees so high that the writers might drop the request altogether.
DCF spokeswoman Cayenne Isaksen said the agency is trying to respond to all of the outstanding requests but did not explain why it has a backlog.
“The department takes seriously its responsibilities under the Public Records Law,” Isaksen said. In two of the 10 cases, the agency said it was awaiting payment for the records.
Agencies are normally required by law to respond to public records requests within 10 days. But there is no legal penalty for missing the 10-day deadline under the state’s public records law, which is widely considered to be one of the weakest in the nation. Some agencies argue they merely need to send a letter acknowledging they have received the request within the 10-day time frame to comply with the rules.
“The main thing the law lacks is teeth,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, one of several groups looking to strengthen the law. A bill to expand access to public records is currently pending in the House Committee on Ways and Means.
Massachusetts agencies have a mixed record of handling public records requests from the media.
In some cases, the state has provided records promptly for little charge. But in others, officials have taken more than a year to respond to requests, demanded tens of thousands of dollars for copies, blacked out large swaths of documents, and defied orders by the Secretary of State’s public records division to provide some records.
In one instance, Governor Deval Patrick’s administration and the Massachusetts Port Authority battled for four years to withhold the names and titles of workers who had received secret payments from the state, only releasing them late last year after a judge ordered the administration to do so.
And the administration never released detailed cellphone records for former Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray after Murray was involved in a mysterious one-car accident. The governor’s office argued that it didn’t automatically receive detailed bills and was under no obligation to ask its wireless carrier for the information just to satisfy a media request.
The heightened interest in DCF comes after several children under the agency’s watch have been found dead in recent months, sparking a wave of media attention and requests from reporters and lawmakers for information.
The agency belatedly learned that Jeremiah Oliver was missing late last year after his sister told school officials she hadn’t seen him in months. It later turned out that state workers hadn’t visited the child’s home in months and three workers were fired as a result. Oliver’s body was found in April. He was 4 when last seen alive.
Separately, a 4-week-old infant from Grafton was found dead in April after DCF allegedly misplaced a fax from police raising concerns about the child’s welfare.
The deaths triggered intense, often critical media coverage as reporters started asking for information showing how frequently caseworkers visited children, how many other children have died or gone missing, and how often the state placed children with parents with criminal records.
Indeed, the agency received more public records requests in the first two months of 2014 than it received in either the first 11 months of 2013 (before Oliver was discovered missing) or in all of 2012.
Until recently, the agency appeared to do a swifter job of handling most public records requests, according to the records log provided to the Globe. For instance, it answered a public records request from the Boston Herald last July in one day and another from WCVB-TV in less than a week,although some requests took much longer.
The agency provided a copy of its public records log to the Globe last month — five months after the Globe initially asked for it and two months after the Secretary of State’s office ordered the agency to turn over the records.
Even when the agency did answer requests, it sometimes took months or demanded fees so high that reporters balked at paying them, delaying the requests further, records and interviews show.
For instance, DCF wanted more than $2,000 for records the New England Center for Investigative Reporting requested last year. The nonprofit organization, which is based at Boston University and WGBH, is still negotiating with DCF about the fees.
In another case this year, DCF requested more than $1,000 for copies of resumes for new hires. DCF said it never heard back from the reporter.
The agency’s balky response to records requests appears to be part of a broader pattern of failing to promptly provide information to the public about its operations.
For instance, the agency neglected to keep minutes or post meeting notices for a DCF advisory committee, something generally required by the state Open Meeting Law. Indeed, the agency took three months just to provide the Globe with a list of members of the committee.
Isaksen, the DCF spokeswoman, promised the agency would post notices for future meetings on its website, adding that the committee is slated to hold its next quarterly meeting Sept. 11.
State Representative David Linsky, chair of the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, said his committee also has had trouble getting information from DCF since Oliver’s disappearance.
“There were times when they were slow and nonresponsive,” said Linsky, a Natick Democrat. However, Linsky said the agency has been much more cooperative since a veteran state worker, Erin Deveney, took over as interim DCF commissioner at the end of April.