Court backs children’s privacy

BY ZHI XIONG | APRIL 21, 2009 7:30 AM

The state Supreme Court affirmed children’s privacy rights with an April 17 ruling: Parents do not have unconditional access to their children’s health records.

But both legal and mental-health experts say parents should not panic; the court’s decision is not intended to wrestle control of children’s treatment away from caregivers.

The court decided it was not in three children’s best interest for their mother, Susan Harder of North Liberty, to have specific information from their counseling sessions.

“When you read the specifics of the case, especially confirmed physical abuse, it makes sense,” said Christine Vincent, who owns a private practice and works for the Community Mental Health Center for Mid-Eastern Iowa, 507 E. College St.

In 2005, Harder pleaded guilty to assault causing injury for attacking her middle daughter. The state gave her two years of probation instead of 90 days in jail. A no-contact order still protects the girl.

According to the ruling, Harder claimed knowing what her kids thought of her — clues she hoped to glean from their sessions with therapist Jane Pini — might help patch their relationship.

The children did not think so, and neither did Pini, who believed releasing the records would have made the children more vulnerable to physical and emotional abuse. Instead, the therapist offered to meet directly with Harder and to provide a summary of her counseling sessions with the children.

Harder filed a lawsuit in 2007. Her attorney argued the court should force Pini to give up the records because parents who have joint custody both have legal access to their children’s medical records.

The lower court sided with the counselor, a decision the Supreme Court affirmed. The court ruled “legal access” was not synonymous with absolute rights, under all circumstances, to health records.

Although the court noted Harder was not the children’s primary caregiver, one legal expert believes the ruling reaches beyond the custody boundary.

“It’s likely the court might apply the same analysis to a custodial parent,” said Jenny Schulz, founder and executive director of Kids First Law Center in Cedar Rapids, an agency that represents children for free when their parents are going through a divorce.

Attorneys from both sides could not be reached for comment Monday.

The lawsuit itself shocked mental health experts. It is rare for a parent to take the demands as far as Harder did, Vincent said. Parents are generally understanding when therapists explain the need for client confidentiality.

“I hope I would have the courage to do the same thing [as Pini],” Vincent said. “They could have rolled over when they first got served with the lawsuit.”

The ruling marked a significant gain in children’s privacy rights, said Claire Dickey, who works with Pini at Anderson, Arnold, and Partners, 209 E. Washington St.

“Historically, we have given [children’s] rights to their parents,” she said. “Parents have rights — legally fought for and established — but children frequently do not.”

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