Privacy concerns leave charity looking for kids to receive 400K gifts

For one longtime Atlanta charity, a Christmas conundrum has appeared: There are hundreds of thousands of free holiday gifts for children in need, but the Atlanta nonprofit that bought the presents needs help finding children to receive them.

The Empty Stocking Fund, the board of which includes Atlanta Journal-Constitution Editor Kevin Riley, has had to hastily set up an online portal to find eligible recipients for more than 400,000 gifts because it is missing the one thing even Santa requires: a list.

Manda Hunt, executive director of the 91-year-old group, said Friday that the Division of Family and Children Services has for decades provided a list of children up to age 12 who receive Medicaid benefits in Fulton and DeKalb counties. Empty Stocking would then notify these families that they could select and pick up gifts.

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

But DFCS told Empty Stocking earlier this month that they could not provide the list this year. In fact, they should never have provided the list because it was a violation of privacy under federal law, said Ashley Fielding, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Human Services, which includes DFCS.

“We’re in the business of trying to make lives better for families,” Fielding said. “ ... We had no choice but to make the choice we did, but the timing was unfortunate.”

This all came to light, she said, because an employee tasked with making the list this year felt there should be a formal agreement with Empty Stocking to set the parameters of how the data is used, Fielding said. That type of formal agreement is common when DFCS is working with a non-governmental organization.

“Once our leadership was made aware of this improper disclosure, they had no choice but to mitigate the harm that had already occurred and stop it from continuing,” Fielding said.

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The state agency is investigating how it came to be that DFCS was sending the list annually. Empty Stocking had been improperly given the names, addresses, dates of birth and genders of these children for years, Fielding said.

Now, the agency must loop in the federal Department of Health and Human Services and notify every family whose personal data was affected by the “misuse of Medicaid information,” Fielding said.

It is unclear how many people have been impacted, but Hunt said Empty Stocking serves 50,000 children a year.

So far, 5,000 people have signed up using the new online system to give away the gifts, Hunt said.

She is using this as an opportunity to expand the program, formerly limited to two counties of people who receive Medicaid.

Now, children from nine counties — Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett, Clayton, Henry, Douglas, Rockdale, Fayette — receiving any kind of government assistance are eligible.

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Once registered online, parents need to bring the confirmation number from an email they’ll receive, documented proof of assistance like a notice of eligibility determination and a photo ID to the Atlanta Community Food Bank location at 970 Jefferson St. NW.

Inside will be Santa’s Village, where parents can pick up presents from Dec. 3 to Dec. 22.

Children will receive two toys, along with educational items and basics, like socks or a toothbrush.

“We will serve every child that comes in, but inventory gets depleted,” Hunt said.