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The Value of ‘Sunshine’

Ohio Sunshine Laws

A hundred years ago in institutions, anonymity left many at the mercy of the powerful and hidden from the view of society. Today that anonymity is reincarnated under the guise of confidentiality and the siren song of a right to privacy. I believe that confidentiality does not serve the disabled and disadvantaged, but rather serves to maintain the power of the “professionals.”

The best interests of those like my brother, who has Downs Syndrome and my adopted son, who had Reactive Attachment Disorder, are served by complete openness in everything that involves them. For my brother and son to be fully genuine and free in who they are, they must be in plain view to the society at large. The reality of our existence must be visible, regardless of our situation, for any of us to be truly genuine and free in who we are, and for others around us to really connect and accept us as ourselves. Human worth is intrinsic and equal for all regardless of individual circumstance. There is no shame in how God made us or in the circumstances that befall us, but only in how we then exercise our freedom of choice in response.

The bureaucracy of those who describe themselves as the "caring professions," thrives out of the sight of the general population and holds "non-professionals" to a standard to which the bureaucracy exempts itself. The "professionals" seem infected with an arrogance born of a of lack accountability. In the internet age, websites like "Kidjacked" help shine the light of accountability into the dark corners of the bureaucratic machine. However, there is also "Sunshine" that can be brought to bear in the form of Public Records Laws and Open Meetings Acts.

Public Records Acts

Many states have "Sunshine Laws" that allow citizens to delve into the workings of the bureaucratic machine. Public Records Acts and Open Meetings Laws are important tools when dealing with the power differential that parents, foster parents, and adoptive parents often face. There are large limitations to what information is available to the citizenry, because "Sunshine Laws" often list many exemptions of information involving children and of trial preparation records. However, receipt of agency policy manuals and other general information can shrink the power differential by holding bureaucrats accountable to the laws as they were written.

When I first searched for – Sunshine Laws Ohio – on the internet, the two most useful references that came up were the applicable law itself, Ohio Revised Code 149.43, and the State Attorney General’s "Ohio Sunshine Laws Update." The Ohio Publics Records Act is a short code that is straight forward and easy to read. The "Ohio Sunshine Laws Update" explains the law by answering questions to both basic and more complex questions in a manner that is assessable. It also provides case law citations included in the answers to the questions someone using the law might have.

Unraveling a Mystery

In Huron County Ohio, where the Gravelle’s live, Public Records were useful in unraveling the story of how county officials handled the case of a disabled man and his sixty-six year old mother, who was charged for purportedly threatening staff at a sheltered workshop for the disabled. The case caught my attention in a story in the newspaper and since something did not seem right, I was prompted into checking what facts could be gleaned. The story can be found here.

Public Records requests provided the court records of the case, the police interrogation CD recording, the police incident reports, the sworn statements of witnesses, the fact that Mrs. Dennison’s Public Defender was a former President of the Board for the staff that had made the charges, and that the staff of the sheltered workshop were allowed into the jail to see the woman when her family and pastor were not.

The basics of the situation, as I understand them, are that management at the County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (MRDD) wanted to commit Shirley Dennison’s son to a state institution rather than do the work necessary to provide for his needs. Mrs. Dennison did not want this to happen since she had bad experiences with a state institution when her son was a child. Mrs. Dennison’s signature as guardian was required for the commitment, but the state institution could not know she was against the plan, or they would refuse the placement of her son.

Mrs. Dennison finally agreed to sign the papers after being told that if she did not sign to commit her son, then the funding for his care would be stopped. (The Medicaid funding could not be stopped and there are at least two mechanisms to increase funding if her son’s needs had increased.) However, she wanted to go along with her son to show support and planned to sign the commitment papers while at the institution.

Staff at the workshop spent the week prior to the placement trying to secure her signature without her going to the institution. Those efforts culminated on 11/2/07 with multiple phone calls until finally Mrs. Dennison left her house to get away from the harassment. She was then called on her cell phone while shopping and finally became angry telling staff to leave her alone and that she wanted to be rid of all of them.

The staff then called the police and said that Mrs. Dennison had threatened to shoot them. Mrs. Dennison was interviewed by police at her home when she returned from shopping and was eventually arrested on a felony charge of inciting panic at the workshop, although the call to police was not a 911 call. One of the staff witnesses said Mrs. Dennison was blowing smoke and that she made threats to no other staff, but a staff supervisor conflicts that statement and yet stated she was really concerned about the day Mrs. Dennison’s son was to be placed in the institution rather than the present.

The sworn statement of the first staff member also said the purported threat was toward someone who was never interviewed. Combine that conflicted picture with the counsel of Mrs. Dennison’s Public Defender, who was a former Huron County Board President with a son in the system, and an initial felony charge of a powerless and nearly destitute woman can almost confidentially find its way through the court system in thirteen days.

I had called the Public Defender’s Office before leaving for an out of state trip to tell Ms. Dennison’s Public Defender that I had documentation that addressed workshop staff credibility. I was told that her attorney had yet to be assigned. I was also told that nothing would happen in the case until after my return and I could show her attorney my information at that time. When I returned not only had the case been completed, but Ms. Dennison’s son was in the state institution. Further, the workshop Superintendent’s admission to see Ms. Dennison while she was in jail on a charge forwarded by workshop staff, when the case was still pending, is troubling (particularly when Ms. Dennison’s family and pastor were refused access).

These types of conflicts of interest definitely need a dose of "Sunshine." I urge anyone reading this to look into their own state’s Sunshine Laws and to do all they can to shine the light of truth into similar ethically outrageous situations.

Mrs. Dennison’s son has returned to his home, but I do not know if his return was based on the institution’s assessment that he shouldn’t be there, or because of the pressure that the pursuit of the facts has generated. I do know that people concerned with the power wielded by the "professionals" in the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities field and the child protective bureaucracy should use all means available to inform the general public, and thereby create greater accountability.

David Cook

Ohio Laws for Citizens

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