Public's right of access to court recording in child death case upheld

Ethan Coley
Ethan Coley

Florida child welfare administrators acknowledged last month that they failed Ethan Coley, a 1-year-old Homestead boy who suffered an agonizing death after his mother refused to get medical attention for his bathtub scalding. Though Ethan's mother had a long history of mistreating her children, the state left the newborn Ethan with her — then turned a blind eye as evidence mounted that he was in danger.

Administrators placed some of the responsibility for Ethan's death on the shoulders of a Miami judge, saying Circuit Judge Alan Fine ignored the concerns of child welfare professionals who had repeatedly warned that Ethan was not safe with his mother.

But details of Fine's actions have been shrouded in secrecy, as the county's judicial administrators had refused to release information on the case.

That might change.

On Tuesday, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jason Dimitris ruled that the recording of one hearing — one before Dimitris that occurred the day before Ethan died — should be released publicly.

Circuit Judge Jason Dimitris

After decades of releasing audiotape of child welfare hearings, the Miami judiciary refused last January to disclose recordings of child welfare court hearings involving Ethan's family, saying judges had previously misinterpreted state public records law. Though hearings in child welfare court are generally open to the public, recordings, the judges now said, are records, not hearings. In Florida, child welfare court records are confidential.

Dimitris is ruling on a petition filed last January by the Miami Herald, which had sought access to a Jan. 17 court hearing he held after he began presiding over the welfare of Christina Hurt's and Taboris Coley's children. The family has a long history of involvement with Florida's child protection system, and, in July 2014, Hurt and Coley lost custody of their kids; it would be the first of three removals.

Dimitris had indicated he was likely to grant the Herald's request. But Hurt and Coley's surviving children, along with Hurt, appealed to the Third District Court of Appeal, which said last week that it lacked jurisdiction over the dispute because Dimitris had failed to sign a final order.

On Tuesday, Dimitris listened to the audio recording in a closed courtroom before agreeing to release it. A lawyer for the siblings could ask an appeals court to forestall the release.

“We are very pleased the judge ruled in our favor on essentially every issue,” said Sandy Bohrer, the Herald's lawyer.

Judge Alan Fine

One-year-old Ethan Coley was the youngest of six children of Chistina Hurt, a mother with a long history of abusing and neglecting her children — and of drawing the attention of child welfare agencies for doing so. DCF took Hurt’s children away from her twice, once in 2014, after she failed to seek medical attention when her 3-year-old daughter cracked her skull and gashed her head. The child said Hurt pushed her off a bed. Hurt said the girl fell. Either way, Hurt ignored a gaping wound.

On Jan. 17, Hurt and Coley were at the Miami-Dade Children’s Courthouse, arguing that they no longer needed to be overseen by Our Kids, Miami's privately run foster care and adoption agency. Dimitris ruled against them, extending his oversight of the family for another six months. That evening, she said, her 4-year-old son poured scalding water into a bathtub where Ethan was being bathed by his 10-year-old sister. Ethan was badly burned from his chest to his toes. Hurt again did not seek medical attention for her child’s injury, worried that her children would be taken away.

Dixie Rogers recalls the moments when Christina Hurt appeared at her home with 1-year-old Ethan Coley in critical condition on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2017.

They were taken away anyway when Ethan stopped breathing at a neighbor's house where Hurt had taken him. On Jan. 18, Hurt was arrested and later charged with second-degree murder.

Hurt is now awaiting trial.