Darrell V. McGraw, Jr., Esq.
E. Jones, Esq.
Attorney General West & Jones
Charleston, West Virginia Clarksburg, West Virginia
Rocco S. Fucillo, Esq. Attorney for Appellees
Assistant Attorney General
Fairmont, West Virginia
Attorneys for Appellant
The Opinion of the Court was delivered PER CURIAM.
the issue on an appeal from the circuit court is clearly a question of law or
involving an interpretation of a statute, we apply a de novo standard
of review. Syllabus Point 1, Chrystal R.M. v. Charlie A.L., 194
W.Va. 138, 459 S.E.2d 415 (1995).
2. This Court reviews the circuit court's final order and ultimate disposition under an abuse of discretion standard. We review challenges to findings of fact under a clearly erroneous standard; conclusions of law are reviewed de novo. Syllabus Point 4, Burgess v. Porterfield, 196 W.Va. 178, 469 S.E.2d 114 (1996).
3. This state recognizes a compelling public policy of protecting the confidentiality of juvenile information in all court proceedings. Syllabus Point 7, State ex rel. Garden State Newspapers, Inc. v. Hoke, 205 W.Va. 611, 520 S.E.2d 186 (1999).
This case is before this Court
upon appeal of a final order of the Circuit Court of Ritchie County entered
on January 7, 2000. In that order, the circuit court denied a petition filed
by the appellant and petitioner below, the West Virginia Department of Health
and Human Resources (hereinafter DHHR), to compel the appellees
and respondents below, William and Gayle Clark, individually, and d/b/a Miracle
Meadows School, to produce medical and school records of the students enrolled
at Miracle Meadows School in connection with an ongoing investigation concerning
allegations of abuse and neglect. The DHHR also requested that the appellees
be required to produce the students and staff of Miracle Meadows School for
interviews with its investigators. In this appeal, the DHHR contends that pursuant
to W. Va. Code § 49-6A-1 to 10 (1977), the circuit court should have ordered
the appellees to cooperate with its investigation.
This Court has before it,
the petition for appeal, the entire record, and the briefs and argument of counsel.
For the reasons set forth below, the final order of the circuit court is affirmed.
The DHHR's petition for custody
was filed after two female students of Miracle Meadows, Shannon M.See
footnote 3 3 and Sheayan M., reported that they had been sexually
abused by a staff member. The girls disclosed the abuse when they were picked
up by the state police after running away from the school on April 13, 1999.
The girls were returned to the school after it was agreed that the staff member
who allegedly abused them would not be permitted back onto the school campus until
the DHHR had completed an investigation.
Shortly thereafter, the school
contacted the DHHR and reported that the girls had recanted their allegations
concerning the sexual abuse. Upon receiving this information, an investigator
for the DHHR and a member of the state police returned to the school to question
the girls again. At that time, the girls reported that they had been pressured
by the school's staff and forced to recant their stories. Both girls indicated
that they were afraid to remain at the school. Thus, the DHHR took temporary
custody of Shannon M. and Sheayan M.
Upon further investigation,
the DHHR determined that two other children at the school had been placed in
imminent danger. In particular, the DHHR alleged that Christopher B. had been
placed in a five-foot by five-foot secured room and forced to sleep on the floor
for a night with a space heater. It was also alleged that Aaron E. had been
beaten with a board by the same staff member who allegedly sexually abused Shannon
M. and Sheayan M. Both of the boys were removed from the school.
Subsequently, the DHHR filed
a petition with the Circuit Court of Ritchie County to compel the appellees
to provide the school and medical records of all students enrolled at Miracle
Meadows School, and to further produce the students and staff for interviews
with the DHHR in connection with its investigation of the allegations of abuse
and neglect. An evidentiary hearing on the petition was held on July 29, 1999.
After hearing the evidence and considering the memoranda, the circuit court
ordered the appellees to produce the requested records for an in camera inspection by
the court. The hearing was then recessed until August 3, 1999, when the parties
presented their arguments to the circuit court. At that time, the DHHR also
informed the court of new allegations concerning another student, Renee S. After
considering the arguments, the court directed the DHHR to pursue the allegations
concerning Renee S. in Harrison County. The court further ruled that there was
no provision in W.Va. Code § 49-1-1, et seq., authorizing the relief
sought by the DHHR. The court stated that to require the appellees to provide
the requested information would result in a violation of their constitutional
rights against self-incrimination, as the information revealed by the records
and interviews could result in criminal prosecution.See
footnote 4 4
The issue in this case is whether the circuit court erred by refusing to order the appellees to submit the school and medical records of all students attending Miracle Meadows to the DHHR and to further order the appellees to make their students and staff available for interviews. The DHHR contends that it is entitled to this information pursuant to W.Va. Code § 49-6A-9 because it is investigating allegations of abuse and neglect. In response, the appellees argue that the circuit court's order was proper especially in light of the numerous letters written by the parents of the students stating that they did not want their children's records released to the DHHR.
After reviewing the record,
we conclude that the DHHR certainly had a duty to investigate the abuse and
neglect allegations in this case. However, we do not find that the DHHR was
entitled to review the school and medical records of the students who were not
the subject of the abuse and neglect petition. Thus, we affirm the decision
of the circuit court, but for different reasons.See
footnote 5 5
This Court has previously
stated that [a]s a matter of public policy, the mental health records
of children should be treated with particular care to protect the child.
Nelson v. Ferguson, 184 W.Va. 198, 202, 399 S.E.2d 909, 913 (1990). In
Nelson, this Court recognized that although medical records do not belong
in the same class as highly confidential juvenile records, the same policy concerns that keep juvenile records confidentialSee
footnote 6 6 are applicable. Id. Unfortunately,
mental disease often carries with it a stigma similar to that associated with
a criminal record and to protect children from this stigma, their records
should remain confidential Id.
In Syllabus Point 7 of State
ex rel. Garden State Newspapers, Inc. v. Hoke, 205 W.Va. 611, 520 S.E.2d
186 (1999), this Court declared that: This state recognizes a compelling
public policy of protecting the confidentiality of juvenile information in all
court proceedings. In that case, this Court discussed the need
to keep a student's educational records confidential when they are introduced
as evidence in court proceedings which are presumptively open to the public.
This Court explained that federal statute and state education regulations
and policy generally provide, with limited exceptions, for the confidentiality
of students' education records. 205 W.Va. at 620, 520 S.E.2d at 195.
As noted above, the students enrolled at Miracle Meadows are troubled children who apparently have been unable to successfully attend school elsewhere. Miracle Meadows is, in effect, a parochial alternative school. The record in this case contains numerous letters from the parents of these students praising the school and staff for helping their children and expressing disapproval of the DHHR's investigation. For instance, one letter reads:
We have a concern regarding a hearing called by DHHR to have interviews of staff and students and access to school records. . . . If we felt that [our] daughter was not in a safe environment we would have pulled her out long ago or she would have urged us to take her out. . . . Our desire for you is to . . . deny DHHR access to school records and interviews of the staff and students.
Another parent wrote:
This fine institution accomplishes
exactly what its Name implies. It is a miracle that so many lives of these defiant
children, most of who have little respect for any authority, can be turned around,
so that they may lead meaningful lives and be contributing, caring citizens
of our country. . . . I do not want the State involved, nor having access to
my daughter's medical, dental, school transcripts, as they have become the property
of Miracle Meadows School.
Yet another parent states:
We sent our son . . . to Miracle
Meadows School to teach him self- management. We are satisfied with the results.
. . . We will not grant permission to have his records or any other records
in possession by the school be made public.
As these letters illustrate, the parents of these students chose to send their children to Miracle Meadows and it is quite evident that they want their children's right of privacy protected. As we noted in Garden State Newspapers, [t]he right of privacy is a precious right which all Americans fiercely and jealously guard. 205 W.Va. at 619, 520 S.E.2d 194.
Our decisions in Nelson
and Garden State Newspapers indicate that these children's records
should in fact be kept confidential in accordance with their parents' wishes.
However, we cannot ignore the DHHR's duty to investigate allegations of abuse
and neglect. W.Va. Code § 49-6A-1 (1977) provides that: It is the
purpose of this article, through the complete reporting of child abuse and neglect,
to protect the best interests of the child, to offer protective services in
order to prevent any further harm to the child or any other children living
in the home[.] Given these circumstances, we find that absent probable
cause to believe that these children were also abused and neglected, the DHHR
does not have a right to review the children's medical and school records. Nonetheless,
we believe that the DHHR does have the right to interview the children.
W.Va. Code § 49-6A-9
sets forth the general duties and powers of the DHHR and specifically directs
that an investigation commence upon notification of suspected child abuse and
neglect. As part of the investigation, the DHHR is instructed to interview the
child or children within fourteen days of the commencement of the investigation.
W.Va. Code § 49-6A-9(b)(3) (1994). In this case, the DHHR commenced an
investigation after Shannon M. and Sheayan M. reported that they had been sexually
abused at the school. As part of that investigation, the DHHR interviewed other
children at the school and some members of the school's staff. Through these
interviews, the DHHR determined that Christopher B. and Aaron E. had also been
placed in imminent danger. Thus, the DHHR filed a petition to remove these two
students from school.
The DHHR maintains that after
these children were removed from the school, the appellees became less cooperative
and as a result some the staff and children were not interviewed. Thus, they
requested that the circuit court order the appellees to make the remaining children
and staff available for interviews. After reviewing the record, we believe that
the DHHR had ample opportunity to investigate the abuse and neglect allegations.
The DHHR's investigators were at the school interviewing the students and staff
from April 16, 1999 through April 20, 1999. The DHHR conducted further interviews
on May 24 and 26, 1999 and on June 1, 2, and 10, 1999. There is every indication
that the DHHR conducted a zealous and thorough investigation. Consequently, we see no basis for allowing
the DHHR to conduct further interviews of the students and staff of Miracle
Accordingly, for the reasons
set forth above, the final order of the Circuit Court of Ritchie County entered
on January 7, 2000, is affirmed.