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FOIA Update: FOIA Focus: Ethel A. Burrows

FOIA Update
Vol. III, No. 4

FOIA Focus: Ethel A. Burrows

In the course of issuing Social Security numbers, compiling earnings information, paying out benefits to millions of retired or disabled workers and their dependants or survivors, and determining Medicare entitlements, the Social Security Administration amasses a great deal of personal information about Americans and their families. Consequently, when abandoned spouses, distraught parents, curious relatives, police officials or hospital administrators want to locate or identify someone, they often turn for assistance to SSA, where FOIA personnel perform the task of making difficult disclosure determinations by balancing public and private interests.

A great many such requests for personal information cross the desk of Ethel A. Burrows, FOI specialist in the Office of Information at SSA headquarters in Baltimore.

The first FOI specialist hired by the Office of Information soon after enactment of the 1974 FOIA amendments, Ms. Burrows is a career public servant. She previously was a claims examiner and a training officer at other SSA components and, before entering public service, taught ninth grade English, among other jobs.

Today Ms. Burrows works with a staff of four other FOI specialists and detailees handling both initial access requests and appeals. As of June 1982, the responsibility for granting or denying all public requests for SSA information -- except for information released under regulations--now rests with the Baltimore FOI staff.

"Previously, it had been a matter of expecting everybody in the agency to be an FOI specialist," Ms. Burrows says. "That's just not possible and the result was that we were sometimes inconsistent or maybe our efforts were duplicative. We've gone to the centralized approach to ensure consistency and to try to achieve better recordkeeping."

The FOI staff expects that centralizing the FOIA responsibility within one office will greatly increase the workload. Ms. Burrows says that since June her office's telephone consultations with other parts of SSA have doubled in volume. The closed caseload in previous years has averaged 300 initial requests and 80 appeals, and it will doubtless be much higher this year.

"And everything we do is a manual operation. All we have are our typewriters, the telephone, and our individual memories," says Ms. Burrows.

"Most of the material we handle is in the Exemption 6 area--it's personal and it's important," Ms. Burrows says. "Currently our only major Exemption 3 statute is the Tax Reform Act of 1976, which applies to earnings information, so therefore we're usually looking at the personal privacy aspects of making a release or withholding material."

While literally thousands of people use SSA's letter-forwarding service (whereby SSA will forward a letter to contact a person for humanitarian purposes), other requests for personal information are not so simple.

Many of these, of course, come to the FOI staff where, Ms. Burrows says, the first step is to determine what records SSA in fact possesses. The second is to turn to the regulations and SSA's operating manuals to see if SSA has established guidelines for what may be released or what should properly be withheld. "Since most of our personal records are retrieved by Social Security number, we often have to find that first, before we can locate other records," she explains.

"If a requester wants more than letter-forwarding--for example, the address of a missing relative--we would get the request and we would check SSA's computer system. This could tell us whether a person is receiving a benefit or is dead.

"If he or she is deceased then we can usually tell the requester whatever is known---for example, how and where and when the person died. But if the individual is alive and is receiving benefits, then we have an Exemption 6 case. Our final determination will depend in part on what information we have, on why the requester needs to learn it, and on where the individual is. We also ask: Is there a public purpose to be served? Is the requester a parent seeking records of a minor, or perhaps a parent acting on behalf of a minor?"

Ms. Burrows gives the following examples of the types of privacy issues which SSA personnel must deal with:

  • A woman took her baby to visit its father who was in the armed services overseas. He took the child from her and was subsequently killed in an accident. His girl friend flaty refused to return the child to the mother. Information regarding benefits being paid was disclosed to the mother.
  • A disabled worker took his child from his wife. The man died and his girl friend assumed custody of the child. The real mother came to SSA several years later and asked for help in locating the child. SSA was reluctant to provide its information to the mother, but offered to disclose the information to a court. "These are tough decisions, the kind that a judge who can have full knowledge of all the facts should make," says Ms. Burrows.
  • A hospital official telephoned. A young person had been severely injured in an accident. It was imperative that the family be reached so that a relative could give permission for an operation. SSA contacted the parents immediately.
  • Local police authorities found a body abandoned on the side of a road. Among the effects was a Social Security number. The authorities needed additional information to establish the deceased person's identity. SSA personnel contacted the family of the holder of that number directly, learned that he was alive and well, but did not identify him further out of respect for his privacy.

Ms. Burrows notes that there are many similar calls from police. "It seems," she says, "people always leave Social Security numbers at the scenes of crimes. Usually someone else's.

"We deal daily with very serious problems," says Ethel Burrows. "To survive in this work what you need is a sense of humor."


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Updated December 9, 2022