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What Becky Lost: Records Were Accidentally Destroyed by the State

  • Rebecca Dunbar in her teens has a birthday party when living in a residential facility for children in Rumney, N.H. during the time she was in the foster care system. (Courtesy Rebecca Dunbar)



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, December 22, 2018

White River Junction — After being approached by Rebecca Dunbar and an administrator from a women’s advocacy group, the Valley News attempted to verify various details of her life.

Of particular interest were Dunbar’s assertions that the state Department of Health and Human Services had made egregious errors that exposed her to dangers greater than those she faced in the family home she was removed from.

According to Dunbar, the state placed her in multiple dangerous settings, including the one where she said she was sexually assaulted for a three-year period by her cousin, Jason Stark. She also says that she and her mother reported the abuse to the state, but that officials failed to act. In an effort to verify those claims, beginning in early November 2017, the Valley News worked with Dunbar to access her personal records with DCYF Child Protective Services.

According to New Hampshire law, DHHS, “shall provide access to the case records” to the person who the records are about. It is also statutorily required to keep juvenile justice files, in part because they might be helpful in the solving of a crime, such as sexual assault.

State officials first responded to Dunbar’s request by saying they needed a written request, which was submitted in December. In January, they reported that the case file had been accidentally destroyed.

“The Department is required by law to retain certain records and also to destroy certain file types after a given period of time,” wrote Jake Leon, the DHHS communications director. “The files in question should have been kept.”

In response to a set of follow-up questions about the circumstances of the files’ destruction, Leon promised a speedy response. But in fact, it took eight months, more than 20 inquiries, and an appeal to DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers before Leon responded. He said that Dunbar’s juvenile justice record, which was closed in 1994 and has rested in the state archive building, was mistakenly placed in a box of files that was scheduled to be destroyed.

Dunbar said her caseworker at DHHS told her as recently as January of 2018 that the caseworker had her records. But Leon said they were shredded by a contracted state vendor shortly after the state issued a June 8, 2017 notification that the box was to be destroyed.

Leon was unable to provide any concrete information about how often the state illegally destroys the files of foster children.

“Although checks into the system are built into this process, the possibility of human error does exist,” he said.

Moira O’Neill, director of the New Hampshire Office of the Child Advocate, called the loss of files a “tragedy,” and said that “record retention is critical in child welfare.”

Her office typically deals with more current cases, involving digital records, and so, she said, she has not encountered similar cases. Typically, she said, “people request and records are made available.”

Though some DHHS caseworkers have worked with Dunbar and are familiar with her file, Leon also turned down a request for an interview with those caseworkers “due to State and federal law requirements related to the confidentiality of DHHS clients.” Even with Dunbar’s permission, DHHS was unwilling to facilitate an interview because, Leon said, “records must be kept confidential in order to protect the confidentiality of all parties involved in a particular matter.”

Dunbar said the files included records of her efforts to report Stark, and other documentation of instances in which she was harmed while in the care of the state.

“That’s what’s written in the paperwork that they won’t give me,” she said. “And that’s why they don’t want me to get it because they know if I get it the right person is going to get it and see it and I could get them in a lot of trouble.”

“This was an unfortunate and unintentional mistake,” Leon said. “Multiple agencies are involved in the State’s archiving and destruction process, and files are stored for years before they are scheduled to be destroyed. It is highly unlikely that one individual would be able to intentionally destroy a file.”

Without offering specifics, Leon said the state had made an effort to understand why the mistake happened and “ensure and strengthen checks” to prevent similar mistakes.

He noted that more modern, digital files are less prone to being accidentally destroyed.

Leon did not respond to requests for an interview with Commissioner Meyers.