Let the ‘Sunshine’ In: How tech-savvy parents use the Open Records Act to illuminate, avoid potential dangers

When choosing a school for son Michael, Cathy Willis, 37, accessed information made available by Georgia's Sunshine Laws.

Cathy Willis, 37, uses the Internet to access information made available by Georgia’s Sunshine Laws.

Contrary to the opinions of today’s youth, there is more to the Internet than just Snapchat and Instagram.

In fact, today’s parent, many of whom are of members of the MTV Generation, have made life decisions based solely upon the invaluable information they found online; information that may have otherwise remained inaccessible if not for Federal and state-specific legislation like the Freedom of Information Act and Open Records Acts.

Five years ago, when Cathy Willis, 37, and Mitch Williamson, 32, were expecting their son and purchasing a home, they had several requirements: they live close to Mitch’s place of work, the area schools were better than the average Georgia school and the neighborhood was free of sex offenders.

Keeping in mind her and Mitch’s neighborhood ideals, Cathy began her search. She accessed several different websites during her search, including U.S. News and World Report, Great!Schools.org and SchoolDigger.com, on which she found information of public record, that has been made available under Georgia’s Open Records Act and Sunshine Laws.

Computers and the World Wide Web have virtually become members of the family, and are as commonplace in the home as furniture.

Computers and the World Wide Web have virtually become members of the family, and are as commonplace in the home as furniture.

“First we checked the school clusters to find those with the best combined ratings of High School/Middle School/Elementary…[and] all three in the Mill Creek cluster [were] rated four or five out of five,” Willis said. “Being in a relatively new, somewhat upscale area was a priority, for safety reasons – we doubled checked the sex offender registry to make sure our neighborhood was clear.”

After deciding on Buford, Georgia’s Mill Creek area, the two then settled on a subdivision.

“We picked our subdivision because of its proximity to a large park and a library branch that was being built,” Willis explained. “Ease of access has made it possible for parents to better protect their kids, vis-à-vis the sex offender registry and online networking tools.”

Since their son Michael was born, Willis continues to use the Internet to gather information from public records.

“We have used social media and online reviews to assist [in] choosing our son’s pediatrician, school, and where he was going to participate in athletics,” she explained. “In addition to positive reviews and recommendations, suggestions were made to avoid certain organizations that catered to a less wholesome demographic.”

To this day, Willis still checks the Georgia Sex Offender Registry on the Georgia Beaureau of Investigation’s website; and although their neighborhood presently remains free and clear of any registered sex offenders, they know that could change at any time, a discovery Willis said, “could definitely be a game-changer.”

“The ability to look into the background of places and organizations makes me breathe easier,” Willis said.

Thanks to Georgia’s Sunshine laws, the pair sleeps soundly at night knowing their house, and their family, is safe.


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