According to federal law, any agency that keeps records must make them available to individuals to whom those records pertain. The 1974 Privacy Act is quite specific in stating that individuals have the right to review and make copies of such records. However, these regulations are often ignored, with individuals denied access or forced to navigate a sea of unnecessary obstacles and red tape to view records that, under federal law, are their own property. Agencies, under the law, are merely custodians of these records, the information considered the legal property of the individuals to whom it pertains.
In a recent example of this sort of abuse of power, the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation clinic in Alpine, Texas refused to release copies of the mental health records of a 16 year old boy to his mother, his legal guardian. To be provided these records, Melinda Secor had to spend hours on phone calls to agency staff, beginning with the local clinic Mental Health Manager Teresa Williams and her supervisor, Mental Health Director Todd Luzadder, then traveling up through the chain of command to state level officials of the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation.
In each and every phone call, Ms. Secor cited the federal regulations, reading the applicable section of the 1974 Privacy Act verbatim, only to be told that, regardless of federal law, and despite a court order that clearly states that Ms. Secor is to be given access to all records pertaining to her son, the records would not be released. Finally, after Ms. Secor made complaints to the department's client rights office and involved an attorney, the agency has agreed to release the documents as required by law.
This sort of obstructive behavior begs the question, are agency officials ignorant of the rights of their clients, or do they simply feel that they can flout federal laws and regulations without consequence? Why, even when informed of the law, would a public agency resist complying with their legal obligations? What end does it serve to routinely and unlawfully deny individuals access to their own information, which, according to federal regulations, are their own personal property?
Whichever the case – deliberately obstructive, power-tripping petty bureaucrats or pure, incompetent ignorance – parents do not have to tolerate such treatment, even if they don’t have the immense amount of cash on hand typically required to combat a breach of their legal and civil rights. Study the law and be persistent in demanding it be respected. Learn how to file legal documents. Talk to the media. Never surrender.