Restricted Access

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

Despite what you may have been told by local media, the decision to open up child protection hearings to the public this week cannot be traced directly to the case of 3-year-old Desi Irving who, after minimal intervention by Hennepin County social workers, was beaten to death last year by her mother. Scores of public officials, among them DFL state Rep. Wes Skoglund, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, say the push for access to juvenile proceedings involving Children in Need of Protective Services (CHIPS) began in 1995, before anyone in the state Legislature knew that Desi Irving even existed. "The key thing was accountability," Skoglund recalls. "My colleagues and I found the system buries its mistakes, so no one knows when harm is done or not done. We felt that if the system was opened, people, all kinds of people--in the system, the press, citizen's groups--would want to come and observe what happens to kids. Desi's story reinforces what we managed to accomplish. But we had acted by the time Desi was killed."

In 1997, Skoglund pushed a bill through the House that would've opened up CHIPS proceedings throughout the state. The Senate passed a watered-down version, allowing only two interested parties into the courtroom at any given time. Eventually the issue died, but Skoglund says some type of legislation would've passed by the end of the next session. In the meantime, the state Supreme Court set up a task force, which included Skoglund, to come up with their own plan. "If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that the courts don't like the Legislature telling them how to run their business," Skoglund says. "So in this instance they decided to initiate something on their own."

This Monday, June 22, a three-year pilot project sanctioned by the state Supreme Court--and spearheaded by Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz--began in 12 of the state's 87 counties, including Hennepin. By allowing the public to observe juvenile protection hearings, declassifying certain court documents, and making available all orders filed by presiding judges, Hennepin County Juvenile Court Judge John Stanoch says Blatz hoped to demystify the CHIPS process. "She wants people to know there's no wizard behind the curtain," Stanoch says. "Just people in black robes." Everyone from children's advocates to public defenders working on behalf of accused parents say they want the public to have a more thorough understanding of what their system is up against: massive caseloads, frightened kids, inept parents, sketchy evidence, limited budgets.

Don Sommers

As expected, the media are chomping at their spiral-bound notebooks to mine this new territory for dramatic material. Desi's harrowing story was told in vivid detail on June 14 in the Star Tribune as the first of three pieces in a feature-driven series called "Inside Broken Families." Two more stories ran the day before the pilot was to begin. Still, various editors, Jim Pumarlo of Red Wing's Republican Eagle and the Strib's Pam Fine among them, have publicly pledged that their newsrooms will treat information about neglected children and their parents "responsibly." Media attorneys and publishers from Chisago County to Watonwan have been huddled around the watercooler for weeks now, debating freedom of the press and ethics. The Minnesota Newspaper Foundation, the state court system, and the Society of Professional Journalists have already co-hosted dialogues in three different locales to give members of the media a better sense of how juvenile protection proceedings work and, according to their joint brochure, to offer "insight into reporting on sensitive issues."

At one such seminar, reporters from KARE-11, WCCO-TV, the Star Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, City Pages, and other Twin Cities media outlets gathered at the St. Paul Radisson, politely taking notes as reps from Hennepin County clued them in to what material would be off-limits--a list that includes the names of children, addresses of foster parents, and testimony given by minors. So cordial were the proceedings, hardly anyone flinched when it was revealed that any and all information could be withheld on a case-by-case basis, a loophole Judge Thomas McCarthy cheerily compared to the U.S. Supreme Court's "you know it when you see it" definition of pornography. It seems the mere prospect of any sort of media access has served to keep the tough questions at bay.

Near the close of the session, Mark Anfinson--an attorney for City Pages and the Minnesota Newspaper Association who sits on the pilot project's rules committee--pointed out that the media's performance during the three-year project would be evaluated by a "neutral agency," yet to be chosen by the Supreme Court. Maybe it was the time of day, or the fact of a sunny weekend in the forecast, but for some reason this revelation caused not a stir. It should have prompted a minor rebellion on the spot for one simple reason: If the project flops, or opponents to its statewide adoption have their way, the media will likely be exploited as a scapegoat.

"I don't think there are really any available, legitimate criteria by which to evaluate the news media's performance in this area. What terms do you use: comprehensive, thorough, fair? What's the baseline? What can the participants agree on?" Anfinson asks. "The opponents of openness, particularly, will be inclined to distort the coverage in ways that serve their predisposition or outright hostility."

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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