Lawmaker seeks help from Missouri Attorney General on open records requests

Rep. Sarah Unsicker complains about Sunshine Law delays by Department of Social Services

By: - December 8, 2021 12:04 pm
Rep. Sarah Unsicker

State Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury, speaks on June 29, 2021, during a House Budget Committee hearing on reimbursement allowance taxes (Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications).

A Missouri state lawmaker frustrated by delays receiving records from the Department of Social Services filed a complaint Monday with Attorney General Eric Schmitt.

In a Monday letter to the attorney general’s office, Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury, detailed a series of Sunshine Law requests she sent to the Department of Social Services, with the oldest requests dating as far back as October.

Out of four records requests, Unsicker wrote she had still not received responsive records for three requests, in addition to facing delays and a lack of response on other issues.

“I feel really frustrated by the department’s lack of response to my Sunshine requests and to my questions, and I’m concerned about what that means about what’s going on in the department,” Unsicker said in an interview. “I’m concerned that they might just not have all the resources they need to do their job, basically.”

Unsicker’s letter, a copy of which was provided to The Independent, builds on previous frustrations lawmakers have had with requests for information from state agencies, with DSS in particular drawing lawmakers’ scrutiny.

Many of Unsicker’s requests were related to records regarding missing foster kids, an issue that drew the ire of state lawmakers earlier this year.

A federal watchdog’s report found DSS’ Children’s Division missed opportunities to prevent foster kids from going missing, repeatedly failed to report to authorities kids’ absence and did little to prevent them from going missing again when found. In 2019, 978 children were missing at some point from Missouri foster care, according to the report.

The oldest request Unsicker detailed in Monday’s letter was dated Oct. 6. Despite being informed Oct. 21 that records may be available Nov. 9, Unsicker wrote in Monday’s letter that she had not yet received any records or an update from the department. On Tuesday, DSS said it located no responsive records, Unsicker said.

Unsicker wrote she also hadn’t received acknowledgement of a Nov. 13 records request. The Sunshine Law stipulates that if access to records is not provided by the third business day after a request is received, an explanation of the delay must be provided.

“The lack of responsiveness from the Department of Social Services hinders my ability to perform my job as a legislator,” Unsicker wrote, noting that the information would help inform her understanding of the department’s budget needs and draft legislation.

In response to a request for comment Wednesday, DSS copied The Independent on an internal discussion on whether to answer questions related to Unsicker’s letter.

“Please let me know if this is appropriate, if you have changes, or if you would just rather I not respond,” Chelsea Blair, a spokeswoman for DSS wrote to other department officials. 

Blair shared with department officials a copy of a proposed response: “The DSS legal team responded to Rep. Unsicker yesterday and are working to provide her with the requests in a timely manner.”

Unsicker said since sending Monday’s letter, she has received some information stemming from other questions, like information regarding long wait times to DSS’ call center for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients, but not related to the records requests in Monday’s letter.

Unsicker said she hopes the attorney general’s office, which is responsible for enforcing the Sunshine Law, can help push along the department’s response. The attorney general’s office told her the request will be processed in the order it was received along with other complaints, “​​on a first-come, first-served basis,” Unsicker said.

Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said Wednesday that the office has received Unsicker’s letter, but can’t comment further currently.

DSS has been the subject of legislative criticism for the last year, as lawmakers have held a series of hearings examining the department’s lack of oversight of unlicensed youth residential facilities accused of abuse, care of foster kids and layoffs of Children’s Division employees.

This past legislative session, lawmakers on a House committee raised questions as to whether department officials were deliberately withholding information after underreporting the number of substantiated cases of abuse and neglect at youth residential facilities.

The department has also faced criticism for its handling of open records requests, with one group quoted upwards of $26,000 for records from DSS. Lawmakers aren’t immune to those costs.

Unsicker has previously recounted $6,000 in bills and a yearlong wait lawmakers have faced for records from DSS. In response, this past session Unsicker attached language to the proposed DSS budget requiring it to cover any costs associated with producing records for lawmakers and provide information within 10 days.

The language was ultimately removed due to concerns about extensive requests and not having the flexibility to respond, Unsicker said. 

With the delays she’s faced, Unsicker said she’s considering whether she will propose a similar provision this upcoming legislative session.

This story has been updated since it was first published.

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Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covered education, health care and the legislature with the Missouri Independent. She previously covered the Missouri statehouse for The Kansas City Star and The Columbia Missourian, where her reporting into social media use by the governor prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. She also covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.