Sunday, March 11, 2012

Story on DCS hotline call is blocked - Indiana

Newspaper had posted information based on report that children were abused

The Indiana Court of Appeals approved an emergency request Friday from the Department of Child Services that prevents the South Bend Tribune from publishing a story based on the recording of a call made last year to the state's child abuse hotline.

On Tuesday, a St. Joseph County judge ordered DCS to release a copy of the May call to the hotline alleging 10 children were being abused in a South Bend home.

The Tribune briefly posted a story on its website based on the tape, along with audio clips from the 20-minute call. Both were removed after the appeals court ordered a stay of the local court order late Friday afternoon.

The Court of Appeals also set a hearing on the matter for Monday.

"We were very, very disappointed," said Tribune Executive Editor Tim Harmon. "The material that we received after the juvenile court judge's order is clearly something the public needs to know about. It is something we have reported about in the past and will continue to report about."

Harmon said the newspaper planned to use material from the call "very responsibly," and the story that was briefly posted did not include the caller's name or gender. It also did not use the names of the children involved.

One of those children was 10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis, who was fatally beaten about six months later. His father, Terry Sturgis, is charged with murder in the boy's death.

DCS already has released paper copies of the Sturgis family's files. Those records included information detailing allegations made in the May call to the hotline. They also reveal that a DCS worker did not make contact with the family until four days after that call.

A few weeks later, the worker ruled the allegation of abuse was unfounded.

However, the circumstances of Tramelle's killing -- he was beaten to death with a wooden club -- closely matched details of the abuse allegation in the hotline call.

Ann Houseworth, DCS spokeswoman, said she was unable to discuss details of pending litigation but did issue a brief written statement.

"The child protection process by statute begins with the call to the hotline -- 1-800-800-5556," Houseworth said.

"The statute requires and callers expect confidentiality when those calls are made. Disclosure of the identification of a caller will have a chilling effect on the willingness of people to call in and report abuse and neglect. Children will be in harm's way if the identity of the caller is disclosed. We will aggressively defend the statute and the confidentiality of those who care about children by calling in to report abuse and neglect."

The fight comes just one day after lawmakers gave final approval to Senate Bill 286. Included in the legislation addressing a number of DCS policy issues is a provision making recordings of calls to the hotline confidential unless a judge orders the information to be released.

Gov. Mitch Daniels could sign or veto the bill. The governor's spokeswoman, Jane Jankowski, said Daniels had no comment on the legal dispute.

DCS Director James Payne repeatedly has pledged that the agency would be open and transparent.

But one critic of the agency, Dawn Robertson of the family-rights group, says that has not been her experience.

"I've heard Director Payne say over and over how DCS would be open and transparent," she said. "In the years since, families we have worked with have repeatedly run into hurdles just getting their own records.

"So why would you think DCS was going to allow more access to information that would help the public determine whether or not the agency's actions are correct or appropriate?"


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