Pricey Record Production Alarms Media Group

     (CN) – A press rights group has decried an agency’s $35,000 demand to release public records on deaths or near-deaths of children with whom it had contact.
     The Tennessean, a Nashville-based daily, has published an ongoing series investigating allegations of abuse and neglect in the Tennessee foster system and rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.
     It now leads a coalition of more than a dozen news outlets and open government groups suing the agency for document access that may illuminate these issues.
     This group includes the Associated Press, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Knoxville News Sentinel, local media groups and area broadcasters.
     The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services told them earlier this year, however, that production of the redacted records would cost $32,000, according the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a media advocacy group.
     Nashville Chancery Court Judge Carol McCoy rejected the price tag in April, limiting the fees to 50 cents per photocopied page and ordering the agency to start turning over documents.
     Since that time, the Tennessean updated its request to include records from July 2012 to May this year and got another exorbitant estimate: $34,954.
     The newspaper’s lawyer, Rob Harvey, explained that DCS can take that position “unless and until we get the judge to order that her current ruling will apply to the new request for the identical records for a different time period.”
     “We oppose it, and we have declined to pay it,” Harvey added.
     He said that the paper estimates that there are approximately 200 case files in the past 11 months.
     “Does the cost estimate mean that there has been an explosion in the number of deaths and near-deaths?” he asked.
     The Tennessean is “finding examples of horrific abuse” in its investigation of the agency, Harvey added.
     “They are finding examples of questionable recordkeeping,” he said. “The judge has made some comments in court that there are situations that appear to her that should have been prosecuted and were not prosecuted.”
     Attorneys for Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services did not respond to a request for comment.
     Harvey said the agency uses several justifications for its pricey estimate.
     “First of all, they say, ‘We lack the people power to do the job,'” he said. “So we have to go hire four or five paralegals from Counsel on Call or a business like that to do the redaction, and we’re going to charge DCS lawyers’ time to figure out how to contract with Counsel on Call. And we’re going to charge for training of the paralegals.”
     In the interest of full disclosure, Harvey noted when reached for comment on the story that he is a colleague of the Bryan Cave attorney who represents Courthouse News.

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