When Minneapolis police told reporters that a 15-year-old had stuffed her newborn in a garbage bag then dumped it outdoors on a 10-degree Minnesota morning, the Star Tribune faced a dilemma. Should it identify the children – mother and infant – in the story?
That deadline decision two years ago (January 2000) was significant because publishing children’s names was a matter of controversy in Minnesota. The state had opened juvenile court hearings in 12 counties for a three-year experiment in 1998. Those who wanted the courtroom doors resealed at the pilot project’s end argued long and loud that openness hurt children named in news stories about the hearings.
If the Star Tribune withheld names in the first story, they’d likely continue keeping them secret in future coverage. And there would be more stories, because the infant survived and was placed in foster care. A battle in juvenile court would ensue over permanent custody of the baby.
The paper didn’t have a policy forbidding naming juveniles in such a case. So some editor had to figure out what to do. Should the paper withhold names to protect the innocent infant who would be identifiable even if only the mother’s identity were revealed? Should the paper publish the names because it looked like this teenager had tried to murder the baby she’d delivered at home by herself in a bathtub?
As lawmakers and judges in states from Maine to Washington consider opening hearings, more editors will face this quandary. When is it fine to name children? When is it better to treat them like rape victims?
The decision is crucial because publication of names is the single largest impediment to public hearings in abuse and neglect cases. Many of the most vehement critics would withdraw their protests if they could be assured that parents and children would never be identified in news columns or on television broadcasts. So should editors pull their punches on this issue, caving to demands to withhold names in order to get reporters into juvenile courtrooms? Inside those courtrooms, reporters can obtain more complete and more accurate information, and they can cover first-hand the actions of juvenile court judges and child welfare officials whose decisions cost billions in tax dollars every year.
To many associated with child welfare and juvenile court, there’s no question that names should be kept secret. They believe that no news is good news for innocent victims of abuse or neglect. They contend stories with names – even just parents’ names – set up innocent child victims as targets for teasing. And because the stories are posted for eternity on the Internet, the information could, somehow, be used against the children in the future.
Some of these champions of children’s privacy take it one step further. They believe accused parents have no right to plead their case to the media if names and photos will be used. Public defenders in Minneapolis objected to a newspaper photo showing a father hugging his daughters who’d just been returned to him from foster care. It didn’t matter that the father and daughters had consented to the picture. The lawyers wanted privacy even for people willing to go public. They felt they had the right to insist on secrecy for people reveling after winning their case in court.
The outrage expressed by some self-appointed privacy protectors is, however, nothing more than disingenuous indignation. Many child welfare groups publish names and photos when it suits their purposes. Agencies trying to sell foster children for adoption post their photos and list their psychological and physical problems on the Internet. Nonprofit groups that provide services to foster children frequently publish pictures and names of cute clients in newsletters – right beside pleas for donations. But these same child advocates will argue before legislatures that newspapers and broadcasters shouldn’t do it.
Still, the privacy argument remains a powerful blockade to opening those juvenile court doors. Some editors buy the right-to-privacy line while others do not. There’s no universal media policy against identifying children as there is for victims of sexual assault. Some papers name; some don’t. Some are inconsistent, naming sometimes, but not others.
In Chicago, names of children are virtually never used. Youngsters are referred to by initials, Baby T or Girl X. And it’s not just victims of abuse and neglect. Even children charged with murder rate anonymity in the Windy City. In 1998, when police accused 7- and 8-year-old boys of killing and sexually abusing an 11-year-old girl, the Chicago media withheld names. That turned out particularly well since the boys were innocent.
The policy is so rigid that Chicago media even stop using names they’ve already printed and broadcast. In May of 2001, while Chicago police searched for a missing 11-year-old, the Tribune ran the girl’s photo and name. When the child was found with the principal of her church school and the man was charged with sexually abusing her, the paper stopped publishing her name. The Tribune, which won the 1994 Pulitzer for its editorials on children’s issues, explained why to its readers. Tribune Public Editor Don Wycliff wrote that it may seem as futile as trying to unring a bell, but the Tribune could no longer identify the girl because the paper’s policy forbade naming sexual assault victims. The television stations followed the paper’s lead.
In a similar situation, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently made the opposite decision. The paper ran the name and photograph of a 13-year-old girl who disappeared from her home on New Year’s Day (2002). When police found her restrained in a townhouse near Washington, D.C., and charged a 38-year-old Virginia man with transporting her across state lines for sexual purposes, the Post-Gazette continued using her name. Editor John G. Craig Jr. explained in a column that it seemed pointless to stop publishing her name when it was available on electronic databases.
Generally, the Post-Gazette’s policy is to use names when it has them, but it has made exceptions, withholding names on occasion. The policy of the Detroit Free Press is, generally, to withhold names. But it has also made exceptions, using names on occasion. An example is an award-winning series by Free Press reporter Jack Kresnak about the murder of 2-year-old Ariana Swinson by her parents. In the December 2000 series, Kresnak used the names of Swinson’s surviving siblings, with permission from both his editors and the children’s custodians. Kresnak, who has covered juvenile court issues since Michigan opened the hearings in 1988, feels strongly that identifying children does them no harm. In his experience, everyone who is important to a child, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles and neighbors, already knows what is going on. And anyone else who reads the name will forget it before flipping to the comics.
HBO permitted a similar exception in the documentary “Broken Child” that it aired in July 2001. Instead of the traditional fuzzed faces and faked identities, the documentary shows abused and neglected children flat out and gives their first names, but not the last. Producer Michael Mierendorf said he struck the balance to provide some protection for the children. While he felt it was important for viewers to see children’s faces, he also believed last names were not crucial. “I did not think their last names added anything to the fundamental scenarios of their stories at all. It was just plain unnecessary,” he said. “To give their last names would further single them out and identify them in their lives, and it was unnecessary. Why do it? What does it add?”
He said professionals in child welfare are schizophrenic on the issue of identifying these children. On the one hand, the Child Welfare League of America lauded him for his two-year effort to track the stories of children, and it arranged for a special screening of his documentary at a meeting of professionals from across the country. “They were delighted that someone had done this,” he said. On the other hand, he said he knows that for some of the child welfare professionals who watched the film, “If I were in their particular state asking for access to their child protective systems, they would have a heart attack.”
For Mierendorf, telling the story without faces, which are far more intimate identifiers than names, just would not have worked. One reason, he said, is that the anonymity of the child welfare system facilitates disregarding it. “Unfortunately, it is a big reality many people find easy to ignore. And the facelessness of it makes it easy.”
Like Mierendorf, some editors are unwilling to surrender to demands for complete anonymity. Newspapers big and small, from Albuquerque to New York City, routinely publish children’s names and photographs. Papers in New York name celebrities, such as Macaulay Culkin, when they show up in family court. That could be expected for stars from any state. But New York papers also name uncelebrated children, from the 4-year-old abandoned by his young mother at a Brooklyn toy store to the 7-year-old whose Russian immigrant mother dropped him off at Madison Square Park on her way to work, as if it were a day care center.
There’s no question that when the media use children’s names and photos, they increase impact. Seared into the memory of every American alive during the Vietnam War is the ultimate privacy-invading photograph of a child – a naked 9-year-old Kim Phuc screaming as Napalm burned her flesh. People care deeply about such a specific child and may feel nothing for anonymous ones.
The effect of such real names and faces is keenly felt in two documentaries on juvenile court that aired on Dateline and MSNBC in April. In both, Karen Grau, executive producer of Calamari Productions of Indianapolis, used full names – first and last – and faces of abused and neglected children and their parents, including a 9-year-old boy who initially finds himself in foster care because his mother is homeless after a fire. Later it is learned that he may have been physically and sexually abused, and, ultimately, he is accused of acting out sexually.
Grau suffered anxiety attacks over the decision to identify this little boy. At first she opposed it and assumed that those closest to him – his mother, the judge, his case manager – would as well. But they didn’t. “They couldn’t have disagreed more,” Grau said, “Their point was this: If you simply tell the story and don’t show his face, people will assume [he] is nothing more than a monster or freak of society. It’s not until you see his angelic face and see that he is every child, that you fully grasp the reality of what is happening to these kids.”
Before each juvenile court hearing Grau wanted to cover, she got signed permission statements from each person she wanted to film, even people who had given her written permission for the past half-dozen hearings. Still, Grau wasn’t sure whether she should fuzz faces. Finally, she decided, a documentary needed to be real life. “If we want to examine, understand and show viewers the true stories of these children, fuzzing their faces and making the stories anonymous does little to no good, in my estimation. As the judges continually tell me, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘everyone involved in these kids’ lives knows exactly what their story is. Their parents know it, their neighbors know it, their teachers know it.’ Their point is that confidentiality laws often protect the abusers, not the kids.”
Similarly, in Albuquerque, N.M., Tribune reporter Susie Gran said her editors insist on true identities. They believe a paper’s credibility is threatened by deliberately withholding such information and enhanced when it uses real names, ages and hometowns. When Gran reads, “Carla T., who did not want her real name used,” she just doesn’t believe the account the same way she does stories with full names and photos.
The Tribune’s decision to use names has had serious consequences for the paper. In New Mexico, the law permits reporters, but not the public, to attend juvenile court hearings – but only on the condition that they withhold names of both children and parents.
Gran wrote many stories about an infamous case in New Mexico in which authorities removed 2-year-old Anamarie Regino from her parents because she was overweight. The parents, Adela Martinez-Regino and Miguel Regino, went to the press to complain and handed over to reporters Anamarie’s name and picture. The juvenile court judge in the case responded by excluding reporters from the hearings and gagging the parties. It was a big price for the Tribune to pay for use of the child’s name and image. But the girl’s mother, Martinez-Regino, says to this day that she’s glad the paper did it. She far prefers her child to be called Anamarie than the title child welfare officials gave her. State officials refused to use the girl’s name, referring to her only as “the fat baby.”
Ironically, stories without names and photos – those that respect children’s right to privacy – may actually dehumanize them, in the way “the fat baby” insulted and objectified Anamarie.
In Minneapolis, the infant thrown in the trash became known as “the garbage baby.” She has no other name because the Star Tribune decided not to identify her or her mother.
They remained anonymous because the Star Tribune tends not to identify juveniles and never identifies suspects until they’re formally indicted. Police did not immediately charge the teen mother, so she was not named in the first story. Later, in stories about the hearings in juvenile court, the paper continued to withhold the names as it does those of most juveniles.
The Star Tribune’s decision to keep the names confidential may have helped to blunt criticism from opponents of open hearings. But use of names in other cases did not turn proponents of open court in Minnesota against it.
Just before the three-year open hearing pilot began, Minnesota’s assistant commissioner of children’s services, Erin Sullivan Sutton, learned that a television station planned to air footage of a foster child. She called the station and urged them not to do it. They ignored her. Even so, Sutton’s support for open court remained solid, largely because she’d seen Kresnak’s work in Detroit. Though he occasionally used names, no court official she spoke to on a trip there could recall a case in which a child suffered because of the coverage.
A more formal verification of Sutton’s casual survey in Detroit is contained in a study by the National Center for State Courts. It analyzed the Minnesota open court experiment and found that children were not injured by public hearings. The National Center’s report was issued in August. Four months later, the Minnesota Supreme Court ordered every county to open hearings beginning July 1, and it did not impose restrictions on naming children or families.
Still, it is possible, Sutton conceded, that a child could be hurt by publicity. But, she added, Kresnak’s stories have led to changes in state law and child welfare policy that have served the greater good of all children in the system.
Sutton, like many newspaper editors, can tolerate the naming of one child to improve the lives of many faceless foster children.
Kresnak’s paper, the Detroit Free Press, seems to have handled this controversial issue extraordinarily well. It made a considered decision to spare abused and neglected children exposure whenever possible. But exceptions can be made, particularly in stories such as Ariana’s, where withholding names would make it impossible to tell a clear tale that expressed her humanity and that of her surviving siblings.
Other editors may decide differently. But it is an issue that should be studied before reporters find themselves on deadline without a policy to guide them.
Barbara White Stack has covered child welfare issues for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly a decade and is now covering “closed” juvenile court hearings with the consent of six judges.