Ruling may impede on research

A state Supreme Court case could restrict access to child maltreatment documentation.

by Logan Wroge

An upcoming Minnesota Supreme Court decision that could tighten the public’s access to child maltreatment documents has raised concern among child welfare advocates and University of Minnesota researchers.

Before July, the state court could rule to restrict the access of social work documents and records of child mistreatment, which are currently available to the public upon request. The potential changes address privacy issues, but some advocates and researchers say it could limit their work.

The state Supreme Court formed advisory committees to make recommendations on the availability of certain documents that are currently available to the public last year, as the court planned a switch to an electronic filing system. In December, one committee proposed to keep documents related to child maltreatment cases private.

But the documents are critical for analyzing how these cases are handled, said Canan Karatekin, an associate professor at the University’s Institute of Child Development. And though privacy issues are at the core of the potential changes and those should be recognized, it’s important that well-intentioned people still have access, Karatekin said.

“There’s very little information out there on what happens in the court in these juvenile protection cases, so there’s a lot of research to be done,” she said.

The court would rule to limit access before July. Currently, the public can obtain physical copies of child maltreatment reports after a formal request and redaction process, said Beau Berentson, director of communications and public affairs for the state’s judicial branch.

Last year, the Star Tribune  published investigative articles highlighting issues in Minnesota’s child protection services. And following one story about the repeated abuse and subsequent death of 4-year-old Eric Dean, Gov. Mark Dayton established the Task Force on the Protection of Children in September.

He appointed 26 members to the group in October and tasked them with making recommendations on how the state could improve child protection services.

The task force’s proposed changes will be presented to the state Legislature this session.

Rich Gehrman, executive director of Safe Passage for Children of Minnesota and a task force member, said documents from social workers and guardians ad litem — or court-appointed advocates on behalf of children in a maltreatment case — are critical to research.

“That’s the heart of what you’re trying to get a hold of. It has a whole narrative, written history of the case,” he said.

Karatekin published a study last year that examined 88 cases of maltreatment in Hennepin County between 2008 and 2012, and Gehrman contributed. The report found issues related to how the state handled the cases.

“The … study revealed a lack of accountability at several levels in court records of maltreated children in juvenile court,” Karatekin wrote in the research’s findings.

But different schools of thought exist when it comes to the availability of the documents.

Traci LaLiberte, executive director of the University’s Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare, said while researchers and advocates can benefit from accessing the records, children’s privacy and safety should be taken into account.

“I think to have every single piece of paper and every aspect of a child protection case to be public to all people in the community does not serve kids well,” LaLiberte said.

If the changes are adopted, a judge could still file an order to make portions of information related to child maltreatment cases accessible to the public, Berentson said.

Monday was the deadline for the public to submit comments on the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision and request to speak at an oral hearing.

Karatekin said she plans to bring her concerns to a public hearing on March 17. The Supreme Court will make a ruling in the following weeks or months, and if applicable, the changes will go into effect on July 1.

“On the one hand, you’re trying to protect the privacy of the children. On the other hand, the remedies they propose would also cut off public access by well-intentioned people, like advocates, journalists and researchers like me,” Karatekin said.