Restricted Access

Child protection hearings are now open to the public, but it's members of the press who will be scrutinized

Outside of the 12 counties where the pilot project is being micromanaged, Anfinson points out that a majority of the state court system's 252-plus judges are dead set against opening up their juvenile courts to the public. ("Frankly, they think the whole idea is goofy," he says.) Most of these opponents, Rep. Skoglund argues, will cite a child's right to privacy or a guardian's fragility as reasons to keep the system cloaked in secrecy--arguments he views as shortsighted and opportunistic.

"I think they [opponents of the pilot] are using these kids," Skoglund says. "They say, 'Oh, these poor children are going to be hurt by public exposure.' When they know that's not true at all. A portion of these kids are in open court anyway. There might be a criminal trial involved with the adult who abused the child. A lot of them end up in custody cases and divorce cases. We [the task force] spoke with a lot of older kids and a majority of them wanted to open the process up. Their neighbors, their classmates, their teachers, they already know. It's not a secret."

After visiting a courtroom in Michigan, where juvenile cases have been open for a decade, Skoglund also believes it's those same neighbors, classmates, and teachers who will ultimately hold the system accountable, not a TV station bent on a sensational case or a newspaper running stories delving into the system's internal doings. "When we went down to the record room in Detroit, we didn't find reporters. We found a grandma or an aunt or a neighbor who wanted to know what's really going on, instead of getting a distorted, secondhand story. And they were angry about the abuse they found out was happening to their child, grandchild, or neighbor."

Detroit-based family attorney Bette Huster still remembers when Michigan's juvenile court system first opened its doors to the public. Youth advocates were worried about vultures in the TV media broadcasting pictures of neglected children to boost ratings. Judges were threatening to throw newspaper writers out on the courthouse steps for the slightest of transgressions. Editors and columnists could be heard tongue-wagging about important, in-depth coverage.

"Ultimately, it just wasn't a big deal," Huster says. "In fact, the coverage was limited. It was just good for justice in general to have these hearings open to advocates, family members, and the public at large." Ultimately, the procedural change barely caused a blip on the local media's long-term radar. Now and then on the local scene, of course, there will be a case like Desi's warranting a headline or two. In all likelihood, the system will become more efficient and accountable, regardless of what the media choose to do, "responsibly" or not.

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