Eric Trapolsi was a 14-year-old student in a special school designed for children with behavioral problems when his court records caught the attention of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Barbara White Stack in 2005. Trapolsi complained that he had been thrown to the floor and choked by a worker at the Homestead, Pennsylvania, facility. Upon reviewing Trapolsi's case, Stack discovered that the claim was dismissed because of a discrepancy between the time stamp on a police report and another time stamp on hospital photographs of Trapolsi's injuries. She combed through records of similar cases to uncover a startling truth: Judges and other fact-finders often deemed children in group homes or detention centers not credible when they complained of abuse in those settings. Out of 100 cases, only three complainants were believed. In contrast, that ratio increased more than tenfold for children who reported parental abuse.
Stack's reporting uncovered systemic mistreatment of abused or neglected juveniles within Allegheny County courts: Workers in group homes for juveniles sometimes had worrisome criminal histories, state agencies had broad powers to take children from their parents, and physical restraints were overused on children in group homes. Early in Stack's reporting on the juvenile-justice system, the paper won an appeal arguing in favor of opening "dependency" cases to reporters and the public to prevent such abuse. Like most juvenile-justice proceedings, they had been closed. Before that, Stack had to work her way into the hearings and gain access to records and get special permission from judges. "This situation should be anathema in a self-governed, democratic society," she wrote for the Journalism Center on Children and Families in 2007. "How can taxpayers decide policy about child welfare and juvenile delinquency when they have no idea what goes on behind those closed doors?"
In 2003, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that dependency hearings should be open. However, the ruling did not apply to delinquency hearings --cases in which juveniles are accused of crimes. After a scandal broke earlier this year in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, in which two judges were accused of funneling children to for-profit correctional centers for even the most minor of crimes in exchange for cash, advocates have been calling for delinquency cases to be opened as well.
For many years, unaccountable detention centers treated adolescent and teenage offenders the same as adults, exposing them to unspeakable abuse and protecting corrupt officials and workers. It was no surprise that recidivism rates increased for these young offenders. Many states have since reformed their juvenile-justice systems by developing incarceration alternatives, providing counseling and education services, and helping young people re-enter society when they're released from detention centers or group homes. However, the majority of juvenile court systems are still closed to the public. While every state establishes its own rules for the juvenile-justice system, most states keep courtrooms and records confidential for both delinquency cases and dependency cases. Critics argue, as Stack did, that closed systems allow corruption and negligence to run rampant or, at the very least, keep the public from knowing if juvenile-detention or child-protection centers are underfunded or functioning poorly.
The case in Pennsylvania and similar ones around the country illustrate why some states are considering expanding access to certain juvenile hearings. The idea is based on the same theory that governs public access to adult court proceedings: Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Ideally, expanded access and press coverage can spur reform when and where it's needed, policing the system more effectively. While the openness of the adult system hasn't achieved those results, some are hopeful that reporters and children's advocacy groups can act as watchdogs by attending hearings and reviewing records and will therefore find out when individual children are at risk or when malfeasance is widespread. …