DENVER - A spokesperson for the Denver Department of Human Services defended the agency's strict confidentiality policies on Thursday following last week's announcement from the Denver Auditor's Office that it intends to sue DDHS in an effort to gain access to DDHS records.
"Basically the Department of Human Services is an arm of the state; so our funding does not come from Denver's general fund. It comes from state and federal funds," DDHS spokesperson Revekka Balancier told 9Wants to Know. "We don't pick and choose confidentiality. It is the law and a principle that we apply across the board."
It's an argument that Clay Vigoda with the Denver Auditor's Office doesn't buy.
"We've exhausted every opportunity that we could. We actually tried to make this particular audit a very small audit - just taking a small bite of the apple - just to see if we could get any type of records," he said. "This was a last resort for the auditor's office. This was only because we had no other way to proceed."
"If we don't have the ability to access records and see how good the programs are, then we have no way of measuring if we're doing the right thing or if we're doing the effective thing," he added.
The story comes in the middle of a series of 9Wants to Know stories documenting the child abuse case against Lorinda Bailey and Wayne Sperling. On Tuesday, an attorney representing DDHS sent a letter to 9News reporter Chris Vanderveen and News Director Patti Dennis warning them they faced the possibility of criminal prosecution if a story that aired on Wednesday night contained any confidential information. The attorney specifically referenced Vanderveen's interview with former DDHS case worker Nathan O'Neal who told 9News he urged DDHS to not allow any children to return to Sperling and Bailey's home between 2007 and 2009.
In 2009, court records show Sperling and Bailey's custodial rights were terminated with their three youngest children. Two of their older children were allowed to return to the home for reasons yet to be discovered. O'Neal told 9News he repeatedly told DDHS not to allow that, but he said he felt he was overruled.
Earlier this month, those two children along with two younger children were taken out of Sperling and Bailey's home in light of a freshly-filed felony child abuse case against the parents. Police believe the pair kept their children "malnourished and non-verbal" while living in filth. The case bears strong similarities to a 2006 misdemeanor case against the two that resulted in the 2009 termination proceedings.
As of Thursday afternoon neither Vanderveen nor O'Neal had received any notice that Wednesday's story had potentially violated any confidentiality laws. 9News believes the statements made by O'Neal were not confidential in nature.
Colorado State Senator Linda Newell, D-Littleton, told 9News on Thursday she worries confidentiality policies employed by DDHS could conceivably offer safe harbor to bad practices within the department. "It could absolutely do that," she said. "It could also not protect the child. It could do the opposite of what we want to do."
She said she sympathizes with the work done by DDHS as well as the work done by other county child protective service agencies, but she says governmental transparency is critical in keeping public trust intact. "We want to know what's going on so we can improve the system," she said.
Balancier isn't swayed by the argument however.
"I understand the frustration, I really do. I understand from the public's perspective it looks like we're not willing to provide information that they feel is critical to understanding what's happening. However, confidentiality exists for the protection of the families we serve," she said.
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