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'Sunlight' ordered in youth, family service agency records

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‘Sunlight’ ordered in youth, family service agency records

  • After the “unimaginable” death of a Newark child, a federal judge ordered disclosure to news media of some records produced in discovery in an ongoing children’s class action against the state’s youth and family services agency.

March 28, 2003 — A federal district judge in Trenton found March 20 that, in light of the “uniquely tragic” death of a 7-year-old Newark boy and the horrendous abuse of his siblings, The New York Times and The (Newark) Star-Ledger may view records produced in discovery in an ongoing class-action suit brought by 20 children against the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services.

The newspapers need the records to comprehensively report to the public the status of children under the agency’s care, the court said, allowing the news media to intervene in the case.

Judge John Hughes rejected the family services’ agency contention that disclosure would compromise the privacy interests of the children, their families and foster families and persons who reported abuses to the agency. Broad allegations of harm do not suffice to justify confidentiality, he said, and the court must consider whether there are issues important to the public.

In January, police found the body of Faheem Williams, who had been dead for weeks, in a plastic bag in a storage room. His twin and younger brothers were discovered earlier locked in a relative’s basement. They were lice ridden, severely malnourished and dehydrated. Reporters learned that the youth services agency had a history of complaints against the children’s mother including recent allegations that they had been beaten and burned while in her care.

The case of the Williams boys provoked strong public concern about how the division served children entrusted to its care. Gov. James McGreevey predicted that “heads would roll,” according to The Star Ledger.

Because of the Williams case, the Times asked to intervene in the class action by children who claimed that the agency failed systemically to protect them from harm. The Star-Ledger later asked to intervene. The media asked the court to lift the confidentiality order in place in the case since June 2002. Attorneys for the children also asked the judge to modify that order.

Bruce Rosen, the Chatham, N.J., attorney for the Times, said that except for information on deaths and near-death incidents, where disclosure is required by federal law, the information on children under the division’s care is not available. This was a state of emergency at the division, he said.

In the proceeding, the newspaper agreed not to request names of living children, but to accept identification by initials or other identifiers.

Hughes ordered disclosed to the public death reports, critical incident reports and, in abuse cases, substantiated reports with identifying details removed. He also would permit the public to see relevant unsubstantiated reports provided that identifying details would be redacted.

“Ordinarily, there is every good reason to shield records of vulnerable children in foster care. But in the wake of the unimaginable death of Faheem Williams and abuse of his brothers,” that protection should not extend to the records ordered opened, he wrote.

The judge said that dedicated agency workers should not fear the disclosures, which would undoubtedly highlight hard work and lead to greater public awareness and assistance.

Ultimately, the judge said, his decision rested on a two-fold concern: “The safety and welfare of the children” and “the court’s belief that letting in some reasonable sunlight on the way government works will serve to protect these children by providing the resources necessary to accomplish that goal.”

(Charlie and Nadine H. v. Whitman; Media Counsel: Bruce Rosen, Chatham, Pa.) RD

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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