Journalists and others often have cause to complain about the difficulties of prying public information from public officials. But sometimes there are reasons for optimism.
Wisconsin has one of the nation’s best systems for accessing court records, through Wisconsin Circuit Court Access, at http://wcca.wicourts.gov/index.xsl. The system has saved county clerks of court countless hours providing this information.
Many local governments put property-tax records online, so owners can check assessments for fairness. Gov. Scott Walker has pledged to launch “Open Book,” a new program to provide detailed information on state spending.
And two recent developments have eased access to state records on child care and senior care facilities — institutions serving highly vulnerable populations.
In January, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services began posting online its inspections of nursing homes, assisted living facilities, in-home caregivers and other health-care providers.
Searchable by name, location and type of facility, the department’s database (http://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/bqaconsumer/search.htm) provides reports from state and federal surveys. These include detailed descriptions of violations, which can range from a dirty seat cushion to failing to protect resident confidentiality.
The database includes any inspections conducted since July 2012. Older records are available on request from the Department of Health Services, in the Division of Quality Assurance, with a 25-cent per-page copying cost. For more information, see http://tinyurl.com/bsdnpvk.
It’s ironic that these records are now so easy to obtain, given that the state has taken steps to limit their use. A law passed in 2011 forbids these records from being introduced as evidence in any civil or criminal proceeding. But anyone can get them online.
The second recent positive development increased transparency in the child care industry.
Last year, the state Department of Children and Families expanded its YoungStar database, at http://childcarefinder.wisconsin.gov/Search/BasicSearch.aspx. It now includes information on the fines levied against child care centers.
The database is easily searched by location, name and type of care. Individual profiles for each center include a YoungStar rating, as well as a list of dated violations and fines with descriptions and plans for correction.
As the Wisconsin State Journal reported, fines are listed for the past two years, with previous fines available upon request.
Anneliese Sheahan, a child care provider in Mosinee and president of a union representing providers, urges users to keep the information available on this website in perspective. Even though a violation is posted, she says, the provider may disagree with it or be appealing it.
But overall, Sheahan is supportive of the move because it gives parents more information about why a provider received a violation, allowing them to distinguish between smaller mistakes and more serious infractions.
For example, she says, one provider could be fined for operating over capacity simply because of a late pick-up by a parent, while another could receive the same type of fine for regularly caring for too many kids.
“There’s a huge difference and parents need to understand that,” Sheahan says.
Information is power. These websites empower Wisconsin citizens to hold accountable the institutions they trust to care for children and the elderly.
And they offer hope for even greater transparency in the future.
Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Rory Linnane is a UW-Madison student and an intern at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.