Hearings Open in Child Abuse

Article excerpt

A month after a Wisconsin county judge barred nationally syndicated Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene and another Tribune reporter from a hearing on a highly publicized child abuse case, the judge has reversed himself and will open upcoming sessions to all journalists.

Calumet County judge Donald A. Poppy had barred Greene and reporter Janan Hanna from a Dec. 22 hearing on the case -- which was otherwise open to the public -- because the journalists refused to pledge not to identify the family in the case. Poppy noted that Wisconsin law allowed him to subject reporters who violated the agreement to a $5,000 fine and unspecified jail time.

However, the name of the family was known not only in Wisconsin, but nationally because of the sensational nature of the child abuse case. Michael and Angeline Rogers, two 28-year-olds from Brillion, Wisc., were charged with 10 counts of felony child abuse after police allegedly found their 7-year-old daughter locked in a dog cage in their basement Nov. 17. Police were alerted to the abuse when the Rogers' 11-year-old boy, who reportedly had been thrown out of the house without shoes or a coat, walked to the police station.

Greene has filed numerous columns on the case and reported on what he says was the failure of the Calumet County Department of Human Services to protect the children before -- and after -- their parents' arrest.

While Greene and Hanna refused to agree to Poppy's terms, at least three other reporters remained in the court room.

"We chose to stay in there and use the information ... for background," said Ted Knutson, man aging editor of the Post-Crescent in Appleton, Wisc. "We discussed what we would do and the decision was, `What's the point?' . . . Greene has made somewhat of a mission out of it, but we didn't feel we were justified in bringing in the heavy artillery."

The Post-Crescent did not publish a story on that particular court session, which is known in Wisconsin as a CHIPS hearing, for child in need of protection or services. However, like other papers in the region, the Post-Crescent has reported on the names of the parents in every story on the case. No news organization has reported the first names of the children.

For its part, the Chicago Tribune at first said it was inclined to take legal action to gain court access. Although CHIPS hearings are normally closed to the public, Wisconsin presiding judges have wide latitude in opening them.

Rather than take legal action, the Tribune sent Poppy what one of its lawyers described as a "very cordial letter ... pointing to a couple of relevant cases."

The Wisconsin Supreme Court apparently also got involved in informal discussion with the judge, who convened a meeting with reporters in his Chilton courtroom. In lieu of a journalist, the Tribune sent a lawyer. Poppy told the group he had reflected on the public interest in assessing the performance of state child welfare agencies in the Rogers case and determined that news organizations could attend any future CHIPS hearings on the children. …