May 14, 2014

More than 1,900 pages of e-mails and documents help tell a story about what’s happened to people with mental health issues in King County in Washington, and what the county’s doing about it — not bad for a collection of documents the county couldn’t seem to find.


Reporter Brian M. Rosenthal first requested those emails last fall after he wrote a Seattle Times series about psychiatric “boarding”, which left people who were involuntarily committed and in need of psychiatric treatment in the emergency room for hours or even days. Many readers wrote him emails about the story afterward.

One “was from a staff person at a hospital that said, nice story, here’s something else you ought to be looking into,” Rosenthal said in a phone interview with Poynter.

The tip was about an obscure state law that meant people who needed treatment were let go if caseworkers didn’t get to them before a time limit. Here’s how the Times explains the law in a sidebar accompanying Rosenthal’s May 10 piece: “When police bring someone to a hospital for psychiatric assessment and possible commitment, a county evaluator must decide within 12 hours whether commitment is necessary. It’s six hours if the person is brought in by a family member.”

So Rosenthal did a little reporting 101, he said, and called the relevant government agencies and asked how often evaluators missed their deadlines. He called sources at both the King County Department of Community and Human Services and the prosecuting attorney’s office who handled the cases. But both said that no one had ever counted.

“Furthermore, they said, this is really not a big issue for us.”

That’s not what he’d heard from people who worked with mental health patients, however, and so Rosenthal filed a records request for all emails in a three-year period with any mention of the issue.

A few weeks later, he was told there were no responsive records. Maybe he’d asked for the wrong phrases, he thought, so he tried again, requesting all communications between the head of the involuntary committment system and the head of the prosecuting attorney’s office.

“And the response was, we have no responsive records.”

Rosenthal filed another request for the records to the prosecutor, and about a month later, he started getting hundreds of emails.

“So it was at that point, we knew we had a problem.”

In March, the Times’ lawyer, Eric Stahl, sent a demand letter and “threatened to sue the agency unless it explained the failure, conducted a thorough search and paid for legal costs and penalties,” the Times explains in the sidebar.

By April, the newspaper had 1,900 documents. Recently, the county employees involved were reprimanded, and the Times settled for “$41,560 in legal fees and public-records-act penalties,” according to the newspaper.

Through his reporting, Rosenthal saw that what he was told initally was correct — the number of people impacted by this law had never been counted before.

“It happens ever other day on average,” he said.

And the actual emails offered a key to the story, showing how the county was handling, or not handling, the process.

“Their emails really provide insight into what the county was saying about this,” Rosenthal said, “and also what they were not saying.”

No emails addressed that the law was a problem, he said, or asked what should be done about it.

And they provided a picture of how the cases were unfolding, Rosenthal said, for people and their families who needed help and weren’t getting it before six or 12 hours was up.

The Seattle Times has a custom tool to keep track of public records requests, said Jim Neff, investigations editor at the Times, in a phone interview with Poynter. And they have pursued court cases aggressively. In 2006, the Times filed motions in 40 cases that had been illegally sealed. That reporting earned the Times a spot as a Pulitzer finalist the following year.

“I’ve noticed some changes over the past decade or so that we’ve been doing this,” Neff said in an email. “At least one agency beefed up staff and got more training. Others reply more quickly. Still others are more thorough – particularly with electronic records. And I assume these changes have extended to all requestors, not just those from The Times.”

The newspaper prefers to get the records without a fight, he said, “but if it comes to that, we will assert our rights to know.”

The Times has a reputation for hard-hitting investigative reporting, Rosenthal said, but in this case, the outcome of taking on the county wasn’t clear.

“We ended up making money off of this, but when we started this, that was far from clear. It was a cost to us that we had to pay a lawyer to look into this,” he said. “I don’t know how many newspapers in this day and age would pay for that.”

Since the story ran, Rosenthal has heard from readers as well as lawmakers who say they plan to address the law in the future. He’s also heard from journalists who are excited to read about the newspaper’s success with getting the records, “and they’re hoping it can be a lesson to people that you have to comply with the public records laws.”

He’s hearing this feedback in Texas, by the way. Rosenthal’s last day at the Times was April 25. On May 5, he started as a reporter with the Houston Chronicle, covering Texas state government at the Austin bureau with an emphasis on health and human services.

“I’m on day 7,” he said. “I have filed records requests already.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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