Closed Circuit

Eric Trapolsi was a 14-year-old student in a special school designed for children with behavioral problems when his court records caught the attention of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Barbara White Stack in 2005. Trapolsi complained that he had been thrown to the floor and choked by a worker at the Homestead, Pennsylvania, facility. Upon reviewing Trapolsi's case, Stack discovered that the claim was dismissed because of a discrepancy between the time stamp on a police report and another time stamp on hospital photographs of Trapolsi's injuries. She combed through records of similar cases to uncover a startling truth: Judges and other fact-finders often deemed children in group homes or detention centers not credible when they complained of abuse in those settings. Out of 100 cases, only three complainants were believed. In contrast, that ratio increased more than tenfold for children who reported parental abuse.

Stack's reporting uncovered systemic mistreatment of abused or neglected juveniles within Allegheny County courts: Workers in group homes for juveniles sometimes had worrisome criminal histories, state agencies had broad powers to take children from their parents, and physical restraints were overused on children in group homes. Early in Stack's reporting on the juvenile-justice system, the paper won an appeal arguing in favor of opening "dependency" cases to reporters and the public to prevent such abuse. Like most juvenile-justice proceedings, they had been closed. Before that, Stack had to work her way into the hearings and gain access to records and get special permission from judges. "This situation should be anathema in a self-governed, democratic society," she wrote for the Journalism Center on Children and Families in 2007. "How can taxpayers decide policy about child welfare and juvenile delinquency when they have no idea what goes on behind those closed doors?"

In 2003, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that dependency hearings should be open. However, the ruling did not apply to delinquency hearings -- cases in which juveniles are accused of crimes. After a scandal broke earlier this year in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, in which two judges were accused of funneling children to for-profit correctional centers for even the most minor of crimes in exchange for cash, advocates have been calling for delinquency cases to be opened as well.

For many years, unaccountable detention centers treated adolescent and teenage offenders the same as adults, exposing them to unspeakable abuse and protecting corrupt officials and workers. It was no surprise that recidivism rates increased for these young offenders. Many states have since reformed their juvenile-justice systems by developing incarceration alternatives, providing counseling and education services, and helping young people re-enter society when they're released from detention centers or group homes. However, the majority of juvenile court systems are still closed to the public. While every state establishes its own rules for the juvenile-justice system, most states keep courtrooms and records confidential for both delinquency cases and dependency cases. Critics argue, as Stack did, that closed systems allow corruption and negligence to run rampant or, at the very least, keep the public from knowing if juvenile-detention or child-protection centers are underfunded or functioning poorly.

The case in Pennsylvania and similar ones around the country illustrate why some states are considering expanding access to certain juvenile hearings. The idea is based on the same theory that governs public access to adult court proceedings: Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Ideally, expanded access and press coverage can spur reform when and where it's needed, policing the system more effectively. While the openness of the adult system hasn't achieved those results, some are hopeful that reporters and children's advocacy groups can act as watchdogs by attending hearings and reviewing records and will therefore find out when individual children are at risk or when malfeasance is widespread.

It remains controversial to make juvenile cases public; advocates of confidentiality argue that privacy protects the reputation of adolescents who still have time to turn their life around. It also protects victimized children who suffer at the hands of parents or caretakers. So far, states have proceeded with caution in opening the process -- only a limited range of hearings have been made public, and interested parties are allowed to request that certain cases stay closed. In other words, judges and courts still have a lot of control over the process. At the same time, there is no aggregated dataset that reporters and advocates can consult or use to compare against anecdotes they hear in court or read in a file. Such statistics, which are not collected uniformly across jurisdictions, are an essential missing piece of this equation -- easy access to hard data could be a powerful incentive for reporters and advocates to look more closely at potential problems in the system.

Most juvenile hearings in the U.S. were open until a series of reforms in the 1960s closed them, provided there was no legitimate public interest in a case. By 2003, at least 12 states had begun to reverse course and opened dependency hearings to the public and press to ensure quality and hold the system accountable.

Connecticut is the latest state to experiment with this approach. Last year, lawmakers established a pilot program to open dependency hearings to the media and select members of the public, like extended family and foster parents. Advocates for children have over the years consistently questioned attorney quality and judicial decisions, both of which remain unchecked by public scrutiny. One group, the Center for Children's Advocacy, proposed and helped write the pilot-program legislation, and its co-director, Sarah Eagan, serves on the initiative's advisory board.

In an interview in 2009, Connecticut state Sen. Andrew McDonald said he was at first skeptical of opening proceedings but began to consider the idea because groups like the Center for Children's Advocacy were on board. "This proposal came to us from the people who are most actively involved in trying to protect juveniles," he said at the time. The Legislature decided to open dependency hearings in only one courthouse in Middletown. The program is being closely monitored for a year before a special state-appointed commission recommends whether to discontinue the program or expand it to other kinds of hearings and other locations. The program is set to end in January.

Deborah Fuller, a spokesperson for the state's judicial system, says the program has not generated much interest. Few members of the public have sat in on hearings, and even fewer reporters have attended proceedings. Judge James Bentivegna, who presides over juvenile cases in the Middletown courthouse, reported back to the advisory panel and attributed the low attendance to the partial nature of access: Reporters still aren't allowed to look at court records, so everything they hear in court is unverified. Only portions of hearings involving testimony are open. Moreover, dependency hearings don't generate the kind of sensation and public interest that would attract readers, and few newspapers have reporters to spare for multiple hearings on a slowly unfolding case.

In this, Connecticut hasn't turned out much differently than two other states that studied and released reports on the effects of opening dependency hearings. Minnesota conducted a three-year study that ended in 2001 after opening its dependency hearings to the public. In many instances, there was a slight but noticeable increase in hearing attendance, but the audiences primarily comprised of extended family members and foster parents and were generally fewer than five people. Arizona, which opened dependency hearings for a pilot program in 2003, found a similar lack of interest. These studies revealed little evidence that opening proceedings would have devastating effects on children. But there also haven't been any reporters dedicated to uncovering and inspiring solutions to systemic problems.

The Connecticut commission will issue a final report to the Legislature before it is, by statute, dissolved. Fuller says the commission hasn't finalized its recommendations yet, but she expects the minimal participation in the program to weigh heavily in the decision. "My own personal impression is that you do have to look at [this] again," she says. "If people aren't coming, then how can you accomplish the purpose?"

There is a movement to standardize and make public data on juvenile cases, which might motivate reporters and advocates to scrutinize the system. Currently, open adult courts have trouble drawing the attention of reporters unless a case is salacious, and journalists typically rely on nonprofit and advocacy organizations to analyze any available data.

A bill tabled in 2009 to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act -- first passed in 1974 to set standards for protecting juveniles in the justice system -- included a provision to provide the public access to some aggregate data, primarily on the race and ethnicity of children, from juvenile courts. Important figures, like the number of youth in delinquency cases who had previously experienced abuse or neglect, or detailed statistics on racial disparities within the system, are not available or uniformly collected. "Sometimes it requires peeling the onion of data so that you get deeper and deeper, but the aggregate data gives you first a general idea of what kinds of problems there are," says Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children's Law and Policy, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

Soler thinks making data available doesn't obviate the need for open hearings. He's worked in court systems in several states, and while there are real concerns about keeping children's information confidential, there are also broad problems that haven't been subject to public scrutiny, and the media can perform a valuable watchdog function if permitted. "Reporters are much more interested in telling a personal story than talking about aggregate data," Soler says. "If a personal story is illustrative or demonstrative of a pattern of problems of a juvenile court, I think it's worthwhile to be used that way. ... There's more to be gained by allowing public scrutiny than by allowing whatever happens in court to be secret."

You may also like