In the Spotlight

News & Features
Child Protection
By Elizabeth Stawicki
January 26, 1999
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A controversial project that opens child protection hearings to the public has gotten mixed reviews after its first six months. Supporters of the project hoped opening the once-closed hearings would spur more people to help abused children through adoption or foster care. They also believed the public would help determine whether the child protection system is working, but opponents argued the publicity would harm children whose cases came under the glare of media attention.

MINNESOTA'S PILOT PROJECT got off to a rocky start on its first day when a Hennepin County judge closed a high-profile child protection hearing because she thought the media had overstepped its bounds. Judge Lucy Wieland closed the hearing of a woman who was in danger of losing custody of her child because her three previous children died before they reached one year. A Twin Cities TV station attempted to interview the mother in the case and film her inside the courthouse.
Wieland: I still don't know if I should've closed the hearing. At the time I thought it was the right thing to do but I don't know if I made things worse. There was a tremendous amount of media coverage and the cameras; and here we were with mothers and children.
This episode gave ammunition to a cadre of naysayers who said opening child protection hearings would strip troubled parents and children of their privacy. The project went forward and Judge Wieland says she still supports open hearings.
Wieland: I think the fears that people had about publicity and jeopardizing the privacy interests of these families have been shown not to be a problem. They've not done that.
Few people have shown up to cause problems. Those waiting here outside the juvenile courtrooms in Hennepin County are mostly people directly involved in a case: parents, children, prosecutors, public defenders and social workers. Susanne Smith heads the Guardian Ad Litems, a volunteer organization that represents the child's best interest in protection cases. Smith is disappointed that the public hasn't taken an interest in attending these hearings.
Smith: I'm still hopeful that as things go on and people get more interested and more grounded about what goes on down here, we will get coverage that's more in-depth. Part of the problem is these are really complicated cases and it takes some time and study to figure out the ramifications and it's not the kind of thing that easily fits into a short story.
These stories can range from crack-addicted parents who sell their children into sexual slavery, parents who are poor and fail to feed and clothe their children properly, to a child whose father has killed his mother.

Supporters of the open hearings hoped these kinds of stories would spur the public to prompt social change ranging from adopting more children out of foster care to paying for more social workers.

The only group that's attended child protection hearings at least once a week since the pilot project began is WATCH; a group that normally monitors adult court. One of its members, Lori Johnson, says she was unprepared for the quantity and severity of what she saw in child protection hearings.

Johnson: You'd read it in the paper every now and then and it would be a terrible case and you'd feel awful. But it wasn't in the paper very often. And then you go down there and there's this whole building full of people. Every day you go there and you realize the numbers.
One public defender hopes churches and other neighborhood organizations will react similarly and go the step of helping where the county cannot. Toddrick Barnett has defended troubled parents in Hennepin County for the past five years. He says many of the families are teetering on the edge and even a little help would make a big difference in unifying a family.
Barnett: I think if people showed up and offered to help saying, "hey you're having a hard time getting kids to school in the morning, my kids are old enough to pick up your kids and take them to school with them; you're having problem with food, we have a food shelf at our church and we're willing to bring food to you", that is where the community could really help.
Barnett is opposed to open hearings but says if the pilot project continues he wishes neighborhood groups would show an interest. Barnett, who has defended three generations in one family, says communities have a stake in stopping the cycle of abuse.

Elizabeth Stawicki covers legal issues for Minnesota Public Radio. You can reach her at