By Samah Assad, Christopher Hacker, Brad Edwards
CHICAGO (CBS) — Cook County officials left the personal information of child sex crime victims in public court records, violating a state law that requires those details be kept hidden.READ MORE: Chicago Weather: Colder And Blustery Sunday Night
The person charged with protecting those victims’ privacy in the records, Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, refused to restrict access to them for more than a month after being told about the problem.
The information, which CBS 2 found in numerous cases, is sensitive: full names, home addresses, phone numbers, and other details for children as young as 5 years old who were sexually assaulted.
Brown’s office only sealed the records CBS 2 found after the Cook County Chief Judge’s office and State’s Attorney’s office stepped in. State’s Attorney Kim Foxx threatened to sue Brown over her inaction, according to a letter obtained by CBS 2.
“Whose-ever responsibility it is to rectify this, it sounds like there’s a lot that needs to be looked into,” said Sarah Layden, who runs Chicago sexual violence advocacy group Resilience. “But most immediately, there has to be a way to restrict access to that information, like, right now. Today.”
Under Illinois law, there should be. It’s clearly spelled out in the 1986 Privacy of Child Victims of Criminal Sexual Offenses Act, which says any record in a child sex offense case “shall be restricted to exclude the identity of any child who is a victim.”
Not in Cook County. While researching another story about sexual assault, CBS 2 producers realized these details were available in police records contained in public court files, which are open to anyone who walks into the Daley Center downtown.
To find out how widespread the problem is, CBS 2 searched the court files of every case of sexual assault of a minor during a single year. CBS 2 is not disclosing the year it looked at or the specific search methods it used to find the cases. On the advice of an ethicist, CBS 2 decided not to contact any of the victims whose information it found.
Of 27 cases filed that year, only 20 could be found in the court’s computer system. Of those 20 case files, 17 contained the private information. Several cases had multiple victims; in total, CBS 2 confirmed the information of 21 child victims was publicly available.
Brown’s office told CBS 2 criminal cases have been scanned and published electronically for the public to view since at least 2014, meaning the private information of child sex assault victims dating back more than six years could be exposed.
Members of the public can normally request printed copies of court files. To see whether officials would provide hard copies, in addition to leaving them unredacted in the court’s computer system, CBS 2 tried twice to purchase the documents.
Both times, employees gave unredacted copies to CBS 2, just like any other court file.
On one occasion, in the criminal department on the 10th floor of the Daley Center, CBS 2 producers requested records for several cases that contained the sensitive details. After about 10 minutes — and for a fee of 11 dollars and 23 cents — an employee handed over the records, no questions asked.
The Privacy of Child Victims of Criminal Sexual Offenses Act doesn’t say which government body should ensure the confidential information of victims is protected. But in Illinois, the clerk of court is charged with maintaining documents.
In Cook County, that’s Brown.
Since CBS 2 told Brown’s office about the problem in mid-September, they’ve resisted making any changes. Instead, they’ve blamed police and prosecutors, and falsely claimed various laws prevent them from taking action.
On Sept. 14, CBS 2 shared the list of cases it found contained the information with Clerk’s office spokesperson Jalyne Strong-Shaw. She claimed state law barred them from altering documents already in court files. When pressed repeatedly in a phone call, she refused to cite the specific statute, instead suggesting the State’s Attorney’s office or police were responsible.
When CBS 2 contacted the State’s Attorney’s office, spokesperson Sarah Sinovic said it wasn’t their responsibility to redact or restrict the files. State’s Attorney documents, she said, only use the initials of child sex crime victims and never include phone numbers or addresses — something CBS 2 confirmed in its review of the 17 case files.
Sinovic explained the police send their records — which CBS 2 found contained the sensitive information — to the Sheriff, who takes custody of a defendant. The county Sheriff brings the defendant to their first hearing and gives the records to the Clerk. The Clerk’s office then puts the records in the public case file, she said.
A high-ranking Chicago Police Department source said they were shocked this information was in public court records.
“We write the reports, they store them, they redact them,” the source told CBS 2 investigative reporter Brad Edwards. “I’m sickened to see these names.”
On Sept. 17, CBS 2 called the Clerk’s office again. This time, Strong-Shaw claimed Illinois Supreme Court rules 15 and 138 prevent the Clerk’s office from changing the documents.
Those rules don’t apply to this situation. Rule 15, titled “Social Security Numbers in Pleadings and Related Matters,” only refers to social security numbers. Rule 138, titled “Personal Identity Information,” only applies to civil cases, an Illinois Supreme Court spokesperson confirmed.
Strong-Shaw didn’t directly respond to questions about the specific rules and continued to deny the Clerk’s office had the authority to change the records.
On Sept. 24, CBS 2 learned members of the Clerk’s and State’s Attorney’s offices met to discuss the problem. Again implying the State’s Attorney’s office was responsible, Strong-Shaw said the Clerk’s office “will be recommending” the State’s Attorney ask Judge John Kirby to issue an order directing the Clerk to remove the documents in question.
On Oct. 15, CBS 2 followed up with the Clerk’s office again. When asked what steps they were taking, Strong-Shaw again said they were “waiting on the State’s Attorney’s office.”
Strong-Shaw cited yet another law she claimed prevented the Clerk’s office from making the changes. That law allows sex crime victims to request their case files be sealed, but the Privacy of Child Victims of Criminal Sexual Offenses Act indicates private information of child victims should always be restricted. It also doesn’t say an order is required for the names to be restricted.
That same day, Chief Judge Timothy Evans’ office released a one-sentence statement saying they would “support the clerk’s efforts to develop a process for having the records protected as required.” When pressed for details, his office confirmed the Clerk’s office was responsible for protecting the records.
On October 20, CBS 2 followed up with Sinovic, the State’s Attorney’s spokesperson. During that phone call, Sinovic lamented the Clerk’s office’s delays, saying they’re “dragging their feet.”
“It’s asinine the Clerk’s office would point fingers at us,” Sinovic said.
Read the correspondence between State’s Attorney Foxx and Clerk Brown:
The letter from Foxx to Brown includes a legal analysis debunking Brown’s claims. The Clerk’s office is clearly responsible for the records, the analysis said, and no law or court rule absolves Brown of that responsibility.
The letter says Foxx offered to help, but the Clerk’s office “rebuffed [the State’s Attorney’s] offers for help.” When Foxx’s office challenged the Clerk’s claims about the Supreme Court rules, the Clerk’s office never replied, the letter said.READ MORE: Shedd Aquarium Asks Restaurants To Help Keep Plastic Out Of Great Lakes
“Your continued refusal to comply with the act places victims of sexual assault in needless danger and invites painful public scrutiny into acts of sexual violence against them,” Foxx wrote in the letter, adding “I will do whatever is necessary to ensure that these victims are protected, including and not limited to, filing suit against the Clerk.”
On Oct. 21, one day before CBS 2 planned to publish this story, the Chief Judge’s spokesperson Mary Wisniewski said the Clerk had finally begun fixing the records.
“The Chief Judge’s office facilitated discussions between the Clerk’s office, the Chief Judge’s office and the State’s Attorney’s office on this issue,” Wisniewski wrote in an email. “The clerk, with the assistance of the State’s Attorney, have begun identifying and restricting access to cases which fall under the statute.”
Later that day — the night before CBS 2 planned to publish this story — at 11:08 p.m., the Clerk’s office sent another statement, this time saying the cases CBS 2 found had been sealed “using the State’s Attorney’s letter and the opinion from her office as the authority.”
The State’s Attorney and the Chief Judge’s offices said the Clerk doesn’t need the State’s Attorney’s authority or an order to make that change.
“The law is what makes this decision,” the State’s Attorney’s spokesperson said.
The Clerk’s office sent their own letter to the State’s Attorney, saying Foxx “mischaracterized my staff’s efforts in regard to complying with the Child Victims Act.” The letter cited other actions the Clerk’s office took, including contacting three other court Clerk’s offices in Illinois and meeting with the Chief Judge’s office to come up with a solution.
On Oct. 22, the Chief Judge’s spokesperson placed the blame squarely on the Clerk.
“The Clerk’s office must comply with the statute,” the spokesperson said in an email. “The method of restriction is an internal matter for the Clerk’s office.
“The Clerk has had the ability and knowledge to determine which cases are subject to the Act since 1987 based on the crime charged and to restrict records accordingly,” the email said.
While Brown’s spokesperson responded to CBS 2’s emails and phone calls, she didn’t acknowledge numerous requests for an interview and instead continued to insist it wasn’t their responsibility.
This exposure of child victims’ information could have a chilling effect on victims who might report similar cases in the future, Layden said.
“Some of the first questions we get asked by victims that want to report or interact with law enforcement are, ‘Is the person that harmed me going to know that I told police?’” Layden said. “’Are they going to know, you know, my address or other identifying information about me?’”
Layden said she now has “very serious concerns about guaranteeing” victims’ information will be kept private in Cook County going forward.
“Unfortunately, I’m not surprised,” Layden said. “But it doesn’t take away from me being appalled by it. I think the unfortunate reality is that I think there’s historic practices of many institutions not having an eye toward safeguarding victim privacy and confidentiality.”
“For there to be certain assurances in place that are being ignored, I think about the further harm that is being caused by institutional responses, or lack thereof, to sex crimes,” she said.
CBS 2 decided it was necessary to publish a story about the issue because, after a month, Brown still hadn’t taken action, and because this violation of state law potentially impacts more than the 21 victims CBS 2 identified.
CBS 2 decided not to contact any of the victims whose names were found in the documents it reviewed. Elana Newman, research director for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, said doing so could re-trigger the trauma of what happened.
“This is so egregious that it’s kind of obvious that this is a problem,” Newman said. “You didn’t necessarily need a survivor or victim’s voice from that group … because it’s clear this is a problem.”
Newman has previously worked with sexual assault survivors and with journalists to ethically report stories about trauma.
“Most of the time, news organizations are struggling with access to information,” Newman said. “In this case, you came across something that you thought you shouldn’t have access to.”
Newman said she expected the problem would be fixed immediately and was “truly shocked” by the delay.
“I assumed that … you’d be telling a story that they’d fixed it already,” she said.
Although Brown’s spokesperson ignored repeated requests for an interview on this story, she did sit down for an interview with CBS 2 investigative reporter Brad Edwards in late 2019, after she had announced she wouldn’t be seeking re-election.
The interview came as Brown was under intense scrutiny — and two criminal investigations — over how she was leading the Clerk’s office.
“It’s outrageous that the Clerk’s office isn’t protecting the identity of minors,” said Richard Boykin, a former Cook County commissioner who ran for Circuit Court Clerk against Brown earlier this year. “I mean, it’s clear in the law … the public policy is that we’re going to protect minors at all costs.”
Boykin, an attorney since 1994, said there’s “no question” the Clerk’s office could be sued over this violation of state law.
“We’re charged with the responsibility of protecting their privacy,” Boykin said. “They’ve been harmed already by an offender because of sexual assault, and then they’re harmed again by the county, by the Clerk’s office and the court system because we didn’t protect their private identity.”
Boykin said he’s been reaching out to lawmakers and the Illinois Supreme Court for guidance. Layden said she’s doing the same with the State’s Attorney’s office and other victim advocacy organizations.
Going forward, the Clerk’s office said the State’s Attorney will identify the cases in which child victims’ names appear and notify the Clerk’s office so they can restrict access to the documents. The Clerk’s office spokesperson also repeated her earlier statement saying the State’s Attorney should request an order giving the Clerk permission to “program our system, to seal past, present, and future [documents] for these types of cases.”
In response, the State’s Attorney’s office spokesperson said while they offered to help the Clerk’s office identify the cases, “the change in the process needs to come from them.”
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CBS 2’s investigation into sexual assault.