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Cook County Judge Blocks ProPublica Illinois From Publishing Details of Child Welfare Case

In moving to shield minors, the judge weighs a challenge to the First Amendment right to publish.

Update, March 19, 2019 - 11 a.m. CDT: Patricia Martin, the presiding judge of Cook County Juvenile Court’s child protection division, on Tuesday granted ProPublica Illinois’ petition to intervene.

In an unusual move, a Cook County Juvenile Court judge has barred ProPublica Illinois, as well as other media, from publishing any information that could identify families involved in a child welfare case.

Patricia Martin, presiding judge of the child protection division of juvenile court, issued the order Thursday forbidding news organizations from publishing the names, addresses or any demographic information that would identify the children or the foster parents in a case ProPublica Illinois has been investigating — a rare instance of a judge acting prior to publication.

Martin has scheduled arguments on her order barring publication for April 5.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a First Amendment right to publish without government interference in numerous cases.

Martin issued her order in response to a motion from Bruce Boyer, a professor at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law and director of the Civitas ChildLaw Clinic, where attorneys, with assistance from law students, represent children in child protection cases and other matters.

Boyer represents the children involved in the case ProPublica Illinois is investigating. He told the judge he wants to protect their privacy. Martin, in her order, also has blocked all media from court proceedings in the case.

At a hearing Friday, a day after Martin issued her order, Gabriel Fuentes, an attorney at Jenner & Block representing ProPublica Illinois, said that every day Martin’s order is in place represents a “constitutional injury” to the news organization. He said restraining the press is “one of the highest bars in national law.”

ProPublica Illinois reporters learned the identities of the children and foster parents independent of and before the court proceedings, which they told the judge in the case at a March 7 hearing.

Fuentes argued Friday that ProPublica Illinois should be allowed to intervene — essentially to join the case — so the news organization could argue why it shouldn’t be prevented from publishing.

Boyer told the judge he was concerned that allowing ProPublica Illinois to intervene would grant the news organization access to information that should remain confidential. “I don’t know how ProPublica can meaningfully participate in the merits of the order without getting access” to the confidential information, he said in court.

“We are not saying ProPublica cannot write about this case,” Boyer said. “We are focused on protecting the identifications of the minors.”

Attorneys from the Cook County public defender’s office representing the birth mother of the minors did not object to ProPublica Illinois joining the case, while a lawyer for the father wasn’t present for the Friday hearing but told other lawyers in the case that she also did not object. Attorneys for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services asked for additional time to study ProPublica Illinois’ motion.

Martin said Friday she would allow ProPublica Illinois to intervene on the issue of prior restraint after she reviewed transcripts of the March 7 hearing. An order had not been issued as of Monday afternoon.

The rest of the juvenile case files would be off-limits, she said.

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Steve Mills

Steve Mills is the deputy Midwest editor of ProPublica

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Mick Dumke

Mick Dumke is a reporter for ProPublica. His work has focused on politics and government, including investigations of local and federal gun policies, secret police databases and corruption at Chicago City Hall.

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