Judge demands release of child abuse records

July 05, 1992|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff Writer

A county judge ordered the Howard County Sexual Assault Center on Friday to turn over the counseling records of two patients for his review in an upcoming child abuse case.

The Howard County Sexual Assault Center fought disclosure of the records of a 10- and 11-year-old patient, claiming the therapy sessions were protected under the confidentiality privilege between a therapist and patient.

But Circuit Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr. ruled that the sessions, conducted by a counselor with a master's degree and under the supervision of a licensed psychologist, did not meet the legal definition of a psychologist's or psychiatrist's relationship with a patient. He cited a March 16 Court of Appeals ruling that judges may review confidential educational records themselves or in the presence of attorneys.

Dan Scherr, the center's lawyer, said that the Court of Appeals decision cited by Judge Sybert does not extend to records between a therapist and a patient.

"The judge found that the [Court of Appeals] case changes the situation as far as disclosure of records, and our position is that it does not," Mr. Scherr said.

He said that the Court of Appeals decision dealt only with educational records.

The psychologist testified that she was under contract as a consultant to the center and spent three hours a week there discussing cases with three counselors. She met with each counselor for an hour once a week.

Prior to the appeals court decision, the center had twice argued successfully in court to avoid turning over patients' records, Mr. Scherr said.

He added that the judge's ruling "doesn't create legal precedent any more than the decisions we've received from other Circuit Court judges."

Judge Sybert subpoenaed the records from the Howard County Sexual Assault Center in connection with a child abuse trial scheduled for Aug. 3.

The defendant, Patrick L. Cunningham, 52, of the 3100 block of Normandy Woods Drive in Ellicott City, is charged with committing child abuse and second-degree sexual offenses against two girls who lived in his apartment building.

In addition to the records from the the center, Judge Sybert subpoenaed the girls' records from the Department of Social Services and their medical records.

Mr. Cunningham's lawyer, Thomas B. McCarty, requested access to the records to evaluate the credibility of the witnesses.

Judge Sybert will review the records in his chambers to determine whether there is any information that is exculpatory or relevant to the defense.

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