For a generation, the Miami-Dade circuit courts have viewed recordings of court proceedings as they did the hearings themselves: They were open to the public.
But this week, in the wake of a tragic death of a 1-year-old Homestead boy, Ethan Coley, court administrators made an abrupt about-face. Recordings of court proceedings about the boy and his five siblings are not like the hearings themselves, administrators say. They are juvenile court records, and therefore not open to public inspection.
Both Chief Judge Bertila Soto and Judge Orlando A. Prescott, who is the administrative judge in the Juvenile Court division, declined to discuss their decision to keep the audio recordings under wraps. In a short statement released through a spokeswoman, the judges said that “electronic records of dependency proceedings are confidential, as are the paper records associated with these cases.” The judges added that a review of recent guidance from state court administrators indicated that they had been in error for several years when they granted access to such recordings.
“Our prior protocol was not in compliance with these requirements. Any changes made to our protocol were merely to be consistent with the applicable law,” the judges wrote.
For 15 or 20 years, the Miami court system has viewed it differently. On a number of occasions, court administrators allowed a Herald reporter to listen to audio recordings of both child welfare and juvenile delinquency proceedings that had occurred earlier.
As recently as last spring, court administrators granted access to several audio recordings in both juvenile and dependency court involving Naika Venant, a 14-year-old girl who hanged herself in the bathroom of her Miami Gardens foster home while live-streaming on Facebook.
Yet in an email Thursday, the court system’s general counsel, Patricia Gladson, wrote “please note that this is not a deliberate change in the court’s policy.”
Gladson declined to mediate the dispute after the Herald sought help from a voluntary program of the state Attorney General’s Office’s special counsel for open government.
Barbara Petersen, president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, called the court’s decision to withhold the recordings irrational.
“It is nonsensical to think you can attend the hearing, but not get an audiotape of the hearing,” said Petersen, whose group advocates for open government. “If you can sit in that courtroom and hear everything they say, then a recording of that hearing should be available.”
The dispute over the recordings doesn’t arise in a vacuum. It concerns the Jan. 18 death of Ethan, the youngest of six children born to Christina Hurt. She also is responsible for his death, police say. Hurt’s 4-year-old son added scalding water to a bathtub in which Ethan was soaking unsupervised, authorities say. When the 35-year-old realized how badly Ethan was injured, she did nothing, they say, because she was afraid child abuse investigators would seize him. He stopped breathing.
The head of Miami’s privately run child welfare agency, Our Kids, told the Herald that Hurt’s older children all had been removed from her care around the beginning of 2016, and later returned to her. So she had reason to worry about losing custody. In the end, Ethan’s older siblings returned to state care anyway, after Hurt was charged last week with aggravated manslaughter.
The Herald’s executive editor, Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, questioned whether the public is well-served by keeping secret how decisions were made in Ethan’s case, especially considering his parents had a lengthy history with child welfare administrators in Miami.
“Without listening to the audio of those hearings, there is no way to understand the decision-making process that left this child in a dangerous home,” Marqués Gonzalez said. “Nor can you prevent the next tragedy. It is, we believe, at the very heart of public interest.”
On Thursday, Miami-Dade Chief Judge Bertila Soto and Miami-Dade Juvenile Court Administrative Judge Orlando A. Prescott issued a statement through a spokeswoman, Eunice Sigler, explaining why the courts had, after several years, stopped granting access to recordings of hearings that are open to the public. Here is the statement:
“In May of last year, the Office of the State Courts Administrator issued a revised form which clarified procedures to be followed by the courts in fulfilling requests for audio transcripts of hearings. This clarification caused us to revisit Rule 2.420 of the Florida Rules of Judicial Administration, which governs access to judicial branch records. The Rule states that electronic records of dependency proceedings are confidential, as are the paper records associated with these cases. The Rule also states that access to confidential records must be requested via a written motion filed with the court. Our prior protocol was not in compliance with these requirements. Any changes made to our protocol were merely to be consistent with the applicable law.”