Confidential records litter vacant buildings

Tens of thousands of confidential records containing social security numbers, financial information and medical histories of children and adults have been left behind in abandoned schools, police stations, nursing homes, churches and hospitals in metro Detroit, a one-year Motor City Muckraker investigation has found.

By state and federal law, the records should have been destroyed or properly secured. Instead, they are strewn throughout easily accessible buildings, stuffed in moldy cardboard boxes and scattered across floors littered with debris.

The records contain social security numbers, addresses, phone numbers and other confidential information of rape victims, missing people, students and cooperating witnesses to crimes. Some include psychological evaluations, medical and criminal histories and disciplinary records of employees.

The records can be a windfall for identity thieves and a danger to crime victims and witnesses. At least three police stations in Detroit and Highland Park, for example, left behind records that identified informants, their addresses, phone numbers and statements to police.

One of them was Carolyn J., who helped police track down a murderer in 1993. Now in her 60s, Carolyn was shocked when we told her we found her phone number, address, social security number and statement to police inside a closet at an abandoned city building.

“It’s horrifying; I’m shocked,” Carolyn, who asked that we not reveal her last name. “I never imagined this would happen. I would never have talked [to police] if I knew this was possible. Never.”

Over the past year, some of the buildings have been demolished. But many more are easily accessible through open doors and windows.

The Motor City Muckraker won’t name most of the accessible buildings to keep thieves from finding the records. But one is worth revealing because of the disturbing incompetence of authorities and the shenanigans of the owner: The abandoned and accessible Greater Detroit Hospital in Hamtramck still contains thousands of patient records despite an extensive investigation nearly 10 years ago that was supposed to ensure the records were properly secured or destroyed. The state fined the owner, Dr. Soon K. Kim, $1 million after the confidential records were seen flying out the open windows in 2006 and later being burned at a farm.

Kim was never charged, yet a quick stroll through the hospital would reveal stacks of patient records.

Similar files have been left behind at nursing homes and other abandoned hospitals in metro Detroit.

One of the biggest offenders are police departments. Police stations left behind social security numbers, arrest reports, search warrants, booking records, rap sheets and victim and witness statements. In one station, bulky binders 0f missing-person reports were strewn across the lobby and behind the front desk, containing a treasure trove of personal data – social security numbers, phone numbers, dates of birth, medical histories, photos and addresses.

But no police department was as shameless as Highland Park’s. When the department was dissolved in 2001, city leaders walked away from the building and left behind every conceivable police record. The place was ransacked for 10 years, with only a fraction of the records remaining by the time the building was demolished last year. Police ignored complaints about the records for years.

Schools in Detroit and Highland Park are just as quick to abandon student transcripts, report cards, medical examinations and disciplinary records, which often include social security numbers, addresses, phone numbers, parents’ names and other personal information.

One of the most egregious examples was the former Cass Tech High School in Detroit, where thousands of student and teacher records cascaded from the building as crews demolished it in 2011. I warned Detroit Public Schools about the confidential records but officials never responded.

None of this should have happened. State and federal law make it a crime punishable by up to 93 days in jail for failing to properly secure social security numbers, health records and other confidential information.

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Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.