Judge: State can release contact info about state-subsidized child care workers

In a 2014 file photo, Maggie Stewart helps little ones at The Children’s House daycare apply the required amount of glue for a holiday project at The Children's House daycare.
In a 2014 file photo, Maggie Stewart helps little ones at The Children’s House daycare apply the required amount of glue for a holiday project at The Children's House daycare. File, 2014

The state Department of Early Learning is free to release names and contact information for licensed child care providers, according to a Thurston County Superior Court decision early Friday .

The agency previously released the information to Shannon Benn, a Spokane-based child care provider, who said she used the contact information to distribute an email newsletter to other people who operate in-home day cares.

But the union representing Washington child care workers that provide state-subsidized child care, the Service Employees International Union Local 925, filed a lawsuit on April 8 in Thurston County court arguing that release of the information put child care workers and children in danger. The union asked for an injunction to prevent further release of information.

Seattle-based attorney Robert Lavitt, who represents the union, also argued that Benn was acting as an agent of the Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based conservative think tank.

In a series of declarations filed with the court, Benn said she wouldn’t be providing the child care providers’ contact information to the Freedom Foundation. However, she was represented by Freedom Foundation attorney James Abernathy.

When the issue was brought before Judge Anne Hirsch on April 12, she issued a temporary restraining order preventing the Department of Early Learning from releasing the information.

The order expired Friday, and Judge Mary Sue Wilson denied Leavitt’s request for an injunction prohibiting release of the information. She also denied a request to extend the initial restraining order, giving the union time to file an appeal.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Angier, who represented the Department of Early Learning, said Friday that the department had reviewed the request, and that the records were approved for release April 13. The information will likely be released soon.

Lavitt had argued that the records shouldn’t be released based on a Public Records Act exemption regarding records intended to be used for commercial purposes. He said that Benn may have been providing the providers’ contact information to a third party, which may have been using the records for commercial gain.

He said that providers who were added to the list in 2015 saw an increase in robotic telephone calls and door knockers after their contact information was released.

He also argued that release of the information could pose a risk not only for the child care providers, but for the children they look after. Lavitt said that many of the children cared for by providers are connected to domestic violence cases.

“We believe that the (Department of Early Learning) has a responsibility to refrain from taking action that will place children at harm,” Lavitt said.

But the real intent of the union’s lawsuit, Abernathy said, was to get Benn to “shut up and stop talking to providers.”

He said that the union was exploiting the Public Records Act exemption, and that no children had been harmed though the information had previously been released

“The information is out there, and no one has used it,” Abernathy said.

Wilson ruled that Benn’s public records request didn’t qualify for the commercial purposes exemption, based on a declaration from Benn stating that she didn’t intend to release the names to a third party. Instead, according to the declaration, Benn intends to keep other child care providers informed about changes to state law and policy that could impact small child care businesses.

This isn’t the first time the Freedom Foundation has faced off against the union in recent history. Early last year, the foundation filed a federal lawsuit challenging the SEIU Local 925’s exclusive representation of the child care workers, and the mandatory union dues they collect.

Amelia Dickson: 360-754-5445, @Amelia_Oly