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July 3, 1972
Honorable R. Ted Bottiger
State Representative, 29th District
8849 Pacific Avenue
Tacoma, Washington 98444
Cite as: AGLO 1972 No. 51 (not official)
We are in receipt of your letter dated June 16, 1972, requesting our opinion with regard to the authority of the department of social and health services to refuse to disclose certain information.
Your letter reads, in material part, as follows:
"Presume that a court has entered a Decree of Divorce awarding visitation rights to the father and custody of the children to the mother. It is immaterial but presume also that the father has been ordered to pay child support and, in fact, does regularly pay the child support. Presume further that the mother applies to the Department of Social and Health Services, Support Enforcement Collection Division, for assistance in collecting the child support even though the father has always been current and paid regularly. Presume further that the mother thereafter moves and refuses to tell the father of her new address in order to deprive him of his visitation rights.
"Under these circumstances, may the Department of Social and Health Services refuse to give to the father involved the current address to which they are forwarding support checks?"
After setting forth this hypothetical situation and question you have further advised us
". . . that the Department has adopted an [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] informal policy answering the above question in the affirmative and frankly refusing to divulge the current address of the mother."
The basis for the department's policy, and in turn, for the answer to your question, will be found in RCW 74.04.060, which reads, in material part, as follows:
"For the protection of applicants and recipients, the department and the county offices and their respective officers and employees are prohibited, except as hereinafter provided, from disclosing the contents of any records, files, papers and communications, except for purposes directly connected with the administration of the programs of this title. In any judicial proceeding, except such proceeding as is directly concerned with the administration of these programs, such records, files, papers and communications, and their contents, shall be deemed privileged communications, and except for the right of any individual to inquire of the office whether a named individual is a recipient of welfare assistance and such person shall be entitled to an affirmative or negative answer.
". . ."
In a case such as that hypotheticated in your letter, the mother and former wife of the father who has been ordered to pay child support is to be regarded as a "recipient" within the meaning of this statute by virtue of the definition of this term appearing in RCW 74.04.005 (9); i.e.,
". . . Any person receiving assistance or currently approved to receive assistance at any future date and in addition those dependents whose needs are included in the recipient's grant."
The term "assistance," in turn, is defined by RCW 74.04.005 (1) as meaning
[[Orig. Op. Page 3]]
". . . Public aid to persons in need thereof for any cause, including services, medical care, assistance grants, disbursing orders, work relief, general assistance and federal-aid assistance." (Emphasis supplied.)
In the case presented by your question it will be seen that although the department is not providing publicly funded welfare payments to the mother it is providing her with child support enforcement services. See, in general, chapter 74.20 RCW with regard to this program, and note, particularly, RCW 74.20.040. Accordingly, we answer your question (as set forth above) in the affirmative.
It is hoped that the foregoing explanation of this matter will be of some assistance to you.
Very truly yours,
FOR THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
Philip H. Austin
Deputy Attorney General