A Time for Trust

Will the foster care system trade transparency for the news media’s strict adherence to a heightened standard of ethical journalism? 

In the six years that I have covered the foster care system and worked along its fractious point of contact with the news media, an all-too-common theme has been one of mistrust, fear and subsequent misinformation.

On one side you have a foster care system burdened with the almost impossible task of mitigating the worst effects of societal dysfunction: child abuse, neglect and child death. Stymied by confidentiality laws and fear that any mistake will be met with public ire and fierce disciplinary action, workers and child welfare leaders are by-and-large afraid of the potential fallout wrought by negative – even if truthful – media coverage.

On the other side you have a cast of overwhelmingly well-intentioned journalists, who are met with a foster care system practically and – in more than half the states – legally cloaked in obscurity. Working under deadline, with limited space on the page and often lacking the deep institutional knowledge to accurately cover the nuances of this complex system, some journalists meet the system’s predisposition to obfuscate as a challenge and even worse an insult.

The system’s culture of confidentiality invariably erodes the news media’s confidence in it, resulting in more of the coverage that the foster care professionals fear. It is a closed loop, which has given us our current, warped public perception of a broken foster care system. While child welfare professionals could be explaining the solutions to the difficult and fundamental problems they face, they spend an inordinate amount of time deflecting  journalists’ probing questions about non-representative stories such as child death. The plain result is that myriad opportunities to engender public and political will are missed and children suffer as a result.

This need not be the case. Over the past few weeks, I have dived back into the old and easily re-ignited debate about whether or not journalists should be granted access to juvenile dependency hearings.

Proponents and statute in the 24 states where the courts are open argue that the news media’s ability to promote positive social change amount to a “legitimate interest” in the proceedings and thus sanction journalist access. Opponents and statute in the remaining states argue that the negative affects of releasing a child’s identifying information and the emotional stress to children caused by a journalists presence are enough to bar the media’s entry.

A thorough scan of the documented effects of opening courts to the news media conducted by Fostering Media Connections found no known-cases of a journalist’s egregious abrogation of a child’s confidentiality. A clear example of the press respecting confidentiality was throughout the recent Jerry Sandusky saga. Journalists had access to the names of Sandusky’s victims, but did not release them to the public.

Still, the fear that such an event could occur is real. If a journalist’s access to the courts runs contrary to the best interests of a child, it is understandable that the foster care and juvenile dependency systems – created on the best interests of the children they serve – would object. To protect confidentiality some courts have been opened with the caveat that if a journalist released identifying information he or she could be held in contempt.

Beyond such precautions, news outlets have their own ethical guidelines, which often, but unevenly stress the need to retain the confidentiality of minors, particularly victims of sexual abuse.

But, the majority of states still run closed juvenile dependency courts. Fear and mistrust still foment an inadequately covered foster care system and children still suffer for it. It is a time for change. It is a time for trust. And this is how we are going to get there.

Regardless of whether or not state law opens the courts to the news media, the judges, commissioners and referees that oversee these hearings have the power to do so. So what would it take to make them feel comfortable enough to allow a journalist in?

I am betting that a journalist’s adherence to a strict and explicit code of ethics would lower the bar for his or her entry into the court. In fact, I tested this very theory last week and was granted access to a docket of juvenile dependency hearings at Marin County Superior Court in Northern California – a state where the courts are presumptively closed.

Before coming in, I sent the court clerk a letter describing my intentions and the draft code of ethics that my organization had produced. Through exhaustive interviews with judges, attorneys, foster youth, journalists and other stakeholders, alongside a review of existing journalist codes of ethics, statute and precedent we created a document that forms the foundation of a longer term vision of strictly defined ethical journalism.

As the proceedings started, Commissioner Harvey E. Goldfine had me explain my intention of adhering to the code of ethics to the attorneys in the courtroom. They raised no objection, and I was able to sit through the entire docket. My presence did not seem to bother the one adolescent who was missing a day in summer school for a review hearing; and I spoke to one social worker who eagerly shared his belief that there should be more transparency in the foster care system writ-large.

But this is only one juvenile dependency court in one of California’s 58 counties. While Judge Michael Nash famously opened juvenile dependency hearings in Los Angeles County earlier this year, there are still hundreds more courts in states across the country that remain closed. I am not the first journalist to be granted access to a closed juvenile dependency hearing in California, most notably Karen de Sa of the San Jose Mercury News and Pati Poblete formerly of the San Francisco Chronicle both negotiated their way in and wrote stories that impelled substantive change to California’s foster care system. But, should we have to negotiate this access every time? I think there is a better way.

In September, Fostering Media Connections will release a report focusing on the varying levels of transparency of juvenile dependency courts across the country. We will also solicit amendments to our draft code of ethics from interested parties and announce a convening to ratify the code of ethics, likely in November.

Participants from the fields of law, journalism, social work and most importantly foster youth themselves will review and discuss the amendments with the intent of ratifying a finalized code by the end of the convening.

With a consensus-built code of ethics in our hand, we will have created an opportunity to make an important bargain between the foster care system and the news media. Both professions will be improved for it: child welfare shedding fear and journalism raising its ethical standards, offering the chance for everyone to do their best work in the best interest of children.

This is the first of a series of stories that will describe the juvenile dependency court system as seen by Chronicle of Social Change reporters. Daniel Heimpel is the Director of Fostering Media Connections and the Publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change.

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Daniel Heimpel, Publisher, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Daniel Heimpel, Publisher, The Chronicle of Social Change 181 Articles
Daniel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at dheimpel@fosteringmediaconnections.org.