After a source leaked information about a closed and controversial child-custody proceeding to The Miami Herald, a Florida judge required more than 30 state employees who were at the hearing to sign sworn statements about whether they disclosed the information, The Herald reported.
Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia did not notify the public about the one-on-one meetings where she obtained the affidavits, causing the newspaper’s lawyers to allege that her actions violate state open-court requirements. Of the 33 workers who met with the judge, all but one signed the affidavit, and Sampedro-Iglesia banned that employee from her courtroom until the custody case was resolved.
The Herald sent a letter to the court’s chief judge on Oct. 15, condemning the chain of events. Sandy Bohrer, an attorney for the newspaper, said that Sampedro-Iglesia’s decision to hold the private meetings causes accountability concerns. People don’t know if Sampedro-Iglesia “twisted arms or threatened people” to sign the document of if she “simply asked politely,” Bohrer said.
“It sends a message, if it isn’t corrected, that any time judges want to hide what they’re doing from the public, they just do it the way this judge did it,” Bohrer said.
Carol Marbin Miller, who covered the custody case for The Herald, called the secret meetings a “witch hunt” and said she contacted some workers who met with the judge but they declined to comment.
“They’re not going to speak to me because they’re all petrified,” said Miller, who learned about the meetings weeks after they occurred.
The custody proceeding that spurred the closed meetings is one link in a controversial case that has received nationwide coverage. Foster parents Jorge and Carmen Barahona are charged with murder and aggravated child assault stemming from alleged abuse of their foster children, Nubia and Victor Barahona, The Herald reported. Authorities found the twin siblings covered in toxic chemicals – Nubia Barahona had died, but Victor survived and was at the center of the custody battle that The Herald had covered.
Victor Barahona was living with his uncle in Texas, but Florida prosecutors argued at the closed hearing that he should remain in foster care in Florida, according to the newspaper. Sampedro-Iglesia ordered Victor Barahona to return to Texas, and The Herald wrote about these proceedings on Aug. 19. It was after the paper published that article that Sampedro-Iglesia scheduled a hearing, on Aug. 26, to establish who leaked the information. After learning that the newspaper wanted to attend, Sampedro-Iglesia held the closed and secret meetings where she gathered the signatures,The Herald reported.
The court has not released any information regarding that meeting, citing child confidentiality rules, according to The Herald. The newspaper’s editors disagreed with that reasoning.
“There’s no way that we can really figure out where the issue of who did or didn’t talk about something impacts the safety or health of the children involved in this case,” said Rick Hirsch, managing editor at The Herald. “It’s just a totally separate matter.”
The Herald did not contest Sampedro-Iglesia’s decision to close proceedings in the child-custody case, Bohrer said. Under Florida law, some parts of child-custody proceedings can be closed, but others should be open, he said.
To Miller, coverage of a case like Victor Barahona’s is an important way for people to learn about problems in the state’s social-service system. Florida is notorious for under funding child welfare and other social services, she said.
“You get what you pay for, and our job is to expose the consequences of that,” said Miller, who has covered child welfare for more than 20 years. “We can’t do that if the hearings in which these issues are explored are closed to the public.”
The Herald is waiting to see if the court’s chief judge will intervene to get Sampedro-Iglesia to apologize publicly, said Bohrer, who would not comment on about whether the newspaper planned to take additional action.
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.