Saturday, March 10, 2012

Indiana Court of Appeals Blocks South Bend Tribune From Reporting DCS Hotline Record Reporting Abuse of Child Later Killed

In an unusual move, the Indiana Court of Appeals granted a preliminary injunction against the South Bend Tribune from reporting several DCS hotline calls that were made warning child welfare officials that a child was being subjected to severe abuse in his home and pleading with officials to intervene immediately. The child later died from the abuse. The court order came down only an hour after the South Bend Tribune had published a story reporting on the telephone calls made to DCS's hotline reporting on the child abuse, which the newspaper pulled from publication upon advice of legal counsel. The newspaper reports on what transpired:
The Indiana Court of Appeals granted a request Friday that prevents the Tribune from publishing records the newspaper obtained from the Department of Child Services.
The appeals court’s ruling came three days after a local judge ordered the release of phone records from DCS’s child abuse hotline related to10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis and his family — ending weeks of DCS legal efforts to keep them out of the public realm.
The records include four audio recordings of hotline calls and accompanying transcripts related to Tramelle, who was found tortured and killed in his home Nov. 4.
But an hour after The Tribune published a story on its website Friday that described one of the phone calls and raised related issues, the appeals court granted the emergency stay DCS requested to prevent The Tribune from publishing the material.
On advice from its attorney, The Tribune removed the story from its website and is forced to refrain from publishing information about the content of the calls. If it does otherwise, the newspaper could be held in contempt of court.
“I am saddened by today’s ruling that delays us from telling this important story,” said Kim Wilson, The Tribune’s president and publisher. “We will continue to fight to provide additional insight and information that might help our community to prevent future tragedies such as the untimely death of Tramelle Sturgis last year.”
A hearing on the matter is scheduled for 2 p.m. Monday in Indianapolis. The court will hear arguments from DCS and The Tribunewith each side given 20 minutes to make its case.
This story comes on the heels of a recent announcement by the state DCS agency proclaiming that its efforts at revamping the agency under the leadership of Gov. Mitch Daniels and its director, James Payne, had led to a dramatic reduction in the number of children reported to have died from abuse or neglect. Gov. Daniels chastised reporters for what he described as inaccurate and misleading reporting on the improvements made by the agency, while lauding the work of the agency's case workers.

A lawyer for the Tribune, Gerald Lutkus, believes the restraining order issued by the Court of Appeals against the newspaper is "patently unconstitutional" based on prior Supreme Court decisions. The Hoosier State Press Association's Steve Key told the newspaper the court's order was "very rare." "Anytime the government steps in to prevent newspaper from publishing information that they legitimately obtained, it raises huge first amendment issues," Key said. The hotline records were obtained by the Tribune through a public records request with the agency.

The Tribune reports that soon after it learned from Director Payne that all hotline calls were permanently retained by DCS, it requested the records. The agency claimed the records were confidential and could not be disclosed. Interestingly, soon thereafter an amendment was filed to legislation making its way through the legislature this year to exempt hotline records from public disclosure. The Tribune's lawyer argued successfully a motion before the St. Joseph County probate court to have the records disclosed on Tuesday. The Court of Appeals order late yesterday barring the records from disclosure was made after DCS approved the probate judge's order allowing the release of the records.

1 comment:

jennim said...