Confidential ACS files found dumped on street

November 20, 2006

By Rich Shapiro and Nicole Bode, Daily News Staff Writers

More than 200 case files filled with confidential information about the city's most at-risk children were dumped on a Manhattan streetcorner, the Daily News has found.

The unshredded Administration for Children's Services files - tossed out in a ripped, clear plastic garbage bag - contained highly sensitive personal data about families, social workers and police involved in agency cases dating from 2000-2001.

"You found it on the street? You're kidding me!" gasped Melissa, a 41-year-old mother whose last name the Daily News is withholding. "They just put it on the street and anybody could have come? Those people need to be sued for doing what they're doing."

The files were tossed in a trash heap filled with office furniture and cardboard boxes in front of the ACS offices on E. 29th St. and First Ave. last Thursday. Agency officials issued a frantic apology to those named in the files, adding that they were scrambling to learn how it had happened.

"What happened here was a direct violation of our policy," said ACS spokeswoman Sharman Stein.

"Our main concern is to find out how it happened, so we can make sure it never happens again. We are terribly upset that the confidentiality of these families was violated. We don't know how it happened yet."

Stein said ACS policy is to store all original files at a warehouse in a secure location and to shred and dispose of duplicate files each week.

Cover letters for the files indicate they came from the Emergency Children's Services unit, the ACS unit that investigates cases of abuse or neglect on nights or weekends.

Stein said each floor of the agency's building is equipped with a locked shredding bin that staffers must use for disposing of files. But she said files from 2000 and 2001 should have been disposed of in 2003 at the latest. She speculated that someone was improperly cleaning out old files before the weekend.

"It's such a direct violation of everything that goes on here," she said.

This is not the first time that city agencies have been caught throwing personal information out onto the street.

Unshredded confidential files have been improperly disposed of at least six times in the past six years. Most recently, in November 2004, Department of Education officials dumped confidential records for home-schooled students outside a Bronx building. Two days after being featured in a front-page Daily News exposť, they did it again.

In 2003, a Bronx public assistance office threw out unshredded income tax returns, copies of birth certificates and methadone treatment records for city welfare recipients. The News documented other cases that year, as well as in 2002 and 2000.

Experts say the troubling trend is likely to continue - because failing to properly destroy personal info is not a crime in New York.

"It's not illegal - but it certainly raises eyebrows and many would think it unethical," said attorney Linda Sotto, a privacy expert at Hunton & Williams in Manhattan. "This data is particularly sensitive and really ought to have been carefully guarded and carefully and securely disposed of."

Maria, 55, was shocked to learn that her information was revealed in a tossed case file long after she volunteered to be a foster mother in 2000.

"How come my name came from all of this? I never had the girl in my care," said the Bronx nursing assistant. "It was supposed to be confidential."

The more than 200 case files included 10 cases of alleged sexual abuse, 60 of alleged physical abuse and 120 of alleged neglect.

Here are some of the stories contained in the files. Again, The News is withholding names and other details to protect the victims:

# An 11-year-old girl is quoted in explicit detail describing the sexual abuse she endured from her stepfather over the course of a year as her mother turned a blind eye.

# A 4-year-old boy was left home alone locked in a filthy, roach-infested bedroom for hours with only a bucket.

# An East Harlem mom punched her 2-year-old daughter in the head and hit her with a bottle. The little girl showed signs of former abuse, including a 6-inch scar across her chest.

Also tucked among the files were countless apparently unsubstantiated cases - much to the horror of those involved.

One Bushwick mother who was cleared of allegations she left her 3-year-old daughter alone in a car for 15 minutes while she went into a store in September 2000 lashed out at ACS.

"I'm really disgusted," said the 34-year-old woman. "I thought they were supposed to shred documents before discarding them, especially people's personal information. It's very irresponsible."

Knock from past leaves her in shock

Twenty-year-old L. had almost forgotten the time ACS workers visited her Brooklyn home in 2001.

The night was a random blip for the third-year college student who's now studying communications at City College, having outgrown her rebellious streak long ago. Her name is being withheld to protect her identity.

She has a good relationship with her mom and feels terrible for blowing up at her that January afternoon before running away overnight to a friend's house.

So she was shocked to learn that her case file - including her name, address and date of birth - was lumped in among the hundreds of horrific allegations of child abuse, sex abuse and abandonment the Administration for Children's Services chucked on the street last week.

"That's ridiculous. They didn't take any action, but I'm out there just like everybody else," said L., who still lives with her mom. "It wasn't like my mom was a bad parent - it was 100% my fault. It was me being a rebellious teen."

She shuddered as she considered what could have happened to her personal information if it had landed in the wrong hands.

"You could be the guy that took my identity - but you're not, and I'm really lucky," she told The News.

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