More transparency. Less secrecy. Those are rallying cries of a task force examining how Minnesota could better safeguard the lives of its most vulnerable children.
That task force was launched after the Star Tribune’s reporting last year on Minnesota’s deeply flawed child protection system. That reporting would have been difficult if not impossible without juvenile court records, which investigative reporter Brandon Stahl relied on to tell the stories of children failed by the system.
Yet while that task force was meeting at the Capitol last fall, a different committee was drawing up plans to seal off many child protection records from public scrutiny. The reasoning: Protecting the privacy of abused and neglected children.
This spring, the Minnesota Supreme Court will adopt new rules of public access to electronic records, recognizing that it’s time to join the mass migration of public records online. Access to child protection records could be collateral damage in the worthy goal of making court files in state courts available on the Web.
If the court follows the committee’s recommendations, it would reverse more than a decade of openness in juvenile court that has served its purpose well.
To understand why restricting this information is such a troubling idea, it’s helpful to know why these very sensitive records were made available in the first place.
After years of conducting child protection hearings behind closed doors, the court system began to experiment in 1998 with opening select courtrooms to anyone who was interested. It became statewide policy in July 2002.The result: The public could read the petitions when county social workers asked judges to take action to protect abused and neglected children. They could also read the reports prepared by these social workers and guardians ad litem, the advocates appointed to represent the children’s interests.
“At the time, this was hailed throughout the country as a major reform,” said Mark Anfinson, a media lawyer who served on the court record public access committee. “It was largely predicated on the notion that problems which are kept invisible to the public are unlikely to receive a lot of public support and attention.”
These records make for difficult reading. They expose personal and painful details of the abuse and neglect of children, whose plight became a legal matter through no fault of their own.
Yet over the past decade, access to these hearings and records has not led to widespread invasion of privacy. In fact, it accomplished exactly what was intended: Provide a window into how Minnesota protects children, one of government’s most important roles.
But a group of judges, government lawyers, court staff, family law attorneys and others who met last fall concluded that the openness experiment had gone too far. Under its recommendations, child-in-need-of-protective-services petitions would be remain unavailable on the Internet. More significantly, the social worker reports and guardian ad litem reports would become confidential.
The latter recommendation came on a 7-6 vote, according to a summary of the committee meetings. Members of the committee said in interviews that it was a tough call.
“I do think there’s a real tension between the need for transparency in this system and protecting vulnerable kids,” said committee member Jessica Maher, a Minneapolis family law attorney. Said Joanna Woolman, a professor and director of the child protection program at the William Mitchell College of Law. “I am a transparency person. … You have to weigh that against having something remotely accessible. That’s a kid that hasn’t decided they want to put it out there publicly.”
According to its report, the committee acknowledged that some of these records remain mostly unexamined by outsiders, except for the Star Tribune’s multiple requests last year. Still, the committee wrote that the reports are submitted mainly for internal use by the court and the task of editing out nonpublic info “renders public access impractical and inefficient.”
In a statement Friday, Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, who’s co-chair of the child protection task force, said her agency did not play a part in the committee’s recommendation. “The recommendation to limit access to court records is not consistent with our efforts at DHS to increase transparency in the child protection system,” Jesson said.
If the high court approves the rules as recommended, the secrecy may protect children’s privacy. But it won’t protect their lives.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.