A volunteer gathers gifts in the warehouse for shoppers at Santa’s Village, which distributes toys through the nonprofit Empty Stocking Fund. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Georgia agency mistakenly shares 350,000 families’ info with nonprofit

The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services shared the personal information of nearly 350,000 families with a local nonprofit’s holiday gift program.

DFCS provided the information — including names, addresses, races, genders and children’s dates of birth — to the Empty Stocking Fund, a nonprofit that gives holiday gifts to children in metro Atlanta each year.

Federal law prohibits the sharing of medical information, including the source of someone’s health care or insurance.

Families in DeKalb and Fulton counties who were enrolled in the state’s Medicaid or PeachCare for Kids programs between 2007 and 2017 were affected. PeachCare for Kids is a health care program for uninsured children living in Georgia.

The nonprofit used the information to identify children who were qualified to participate in the program. The program allows parents to select gifts to give to their children.

In a press release, the Georgia Department of Human Services said no medical information or Social Security numbers were shared in the breach. The department oversees DFCS.

Since at least 2007, DFCS has provided the Empty Stocking Fund with a list of eligible families — ones that have received Medicaid or PeachCare with children age 12 and younger — so the nonprofit could send letters inviting them to participate. When speaking with their in-house attorneys before sending out this year’s list, DFCS officials learned they had violated federal law.

“While we have no reason to believe that anyone’s information was used in a way that would cause them harm, we are obligated to protect the privacy of those we serve,” interim DHS Commissioner Gerlda Hines said in a statement. “We have taken action to prevent future unauthorized disclosures, and to protect those who may have been affected by previous disclosures.”

This year, DFCS distributed some letters on behalf of the Empty Stocking Fund and the nonprofit increased its advertising outreach to let people know about the organization, said Manda Hunt, the fund’s executive director.

She said that while the number of families the Empty Stocking Fund helped dropped to about 35,000 from an average of 45,000, she believes the change will lead to the organization helping more people.

In the past, invited families were limited to those who received Medicaid or PeachCare. Now, Hunt said, any family receiving public assistance with children age 12 or younger can qualify to receive a gift.

“Ultimately, it was one of these things that was a tough year for us,” she said. “But at the end of the day, sometimes forced changes are a good.”

Anyone seeking more information about the breach can call 855-501-4636 between 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. for the next 90 days.

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/news/georgia-government/.

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