By Brad Edwards, Samah Assad, Chris Hacker
CHICAGO (CBS) — Sweeping changes to privacy protections for survivors of sexual violence could be on their way to becoming law, following a series of CBS 2 reports.READ MORE: Cook County Opening 3 Mass Vaccination Sites This Week
The two pieces of legislation — a new bill and an amendment to an existing one — were introduced by Illinois State Senator and Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, with the changes spearheaded by new Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez, in response to CBS 2’s reporting.
The bills take steps to ensure no victims’ personal information can fall into the wrong hands. It strengthens existing protections for child sex crime victims and expands those protections to adults.
In October of 2020, CBS 2 reported that the names, phone numbers and home addresses of child sex crime victims were visible in court documents. CBS 2 producers not only discovered the sensitive details while reviewing records for a related investigation into sexual assault in Chicago. Clerk’s Office staff also handed producers copies the records without checking the files.
When told about the issue, then-Clerk of Court Dorothy Brown — the person tasked with maintaining court documents — resisted taking action for weeks until State’s Attorney Kim Foxx threatened to sue. Brown’s office later told CBS 2 they would review the records and restrict access to the private information.
Months later, CBS 2 checked again, and found many records still hadn’t been fixed.
After notifying Brown’s successor, newly elected Clerk Martinez, CBS 2 learned the problem was far worse. As many as 10,000 cases that potentially contained victims’ information were visible in public computer terminals.
“When I was told there was thousands, tens of thousands, I was shocked,” Martinez said.
Martinez, a state senator for 20 years, drew on her connections in the Illinois State Senate.
“The minute the story was aired, we worked on it right away,” she said. “Right away, I contacted Senator Lightford and said ‘I have a bill that I’m going to ask you to work with me on,’ because this is important.”
Lightford said she immediately understood the urgency.
“It’s trauma in victim’s lives when they have been violated,” Lightford said. “And to know that that information could be exposed publicly is reliving your trauma.”
Martinez and Lightford sought to fix a weak point in a 1986 law that protects the privacy of child sex crime victims in Illinois. That law, Lightford said, was unclear about whose responsibility it was to protect the information.
“This was 35 years ago when social media wasn’t as it is today,” Lightford said. “Technology was not as advanced, and that’s why it’s important that we revisit statutes that are outdated.”
The bill, Senate Bill 2339, amends the 1986 law. Members of the public will still be able to see basic information about a case but will now need a court order to view any documents, making it virtually impossible for anyone to see the records without permission.READ MORE: Major Airlines Warn Of ‘Catastrophic Disruption’ To Travel And Shipping From 5G Debut Set For Wednesday By Verizon And AT&T
CBS 2 reviewed laws across the country and found, while there are some laws related to sexual assault victims, the proposed legislation in Illinois, if passed, would be the first of its kind.
Many states had laws against releasing private information through public records requests, but had no protections for court records. Those that did often lacked specifics, such as in Nebraska, where state law says public officers aren’t allowed to release private information but doesn’t say how the records should be protected.
The amended bill and new legislation will be heard in Committee Tuesday.
Now, as the bills wind their way through the legislative process, the new clerk’s staff faces a daunting challenge: manually reviewing every one of those files to ensure no victims’ information is publicly visible.
Martinez’ office granted CBS 2 exclusive access to that process.
Clerk’s Office staff are now working to painstakingly examine each page of a case file, looking for any victims’ names, addresses, phone numbers and other information. They’re starting with active cases and working backwards, with cases dating back years.
“Going through the document itself could average up to 15, 20 minutes,” said Martinez’ Executive Clerk for External Affairs, Patrick Hanlon. “Possibly even longer, depending on how many documents are filed.”
Court files can be extensive, especially in complex felony cases like these. The private information could be on any one of the often hundreds of pages in a case file, each of which now has to be examined.
“Sometimes [a document] can be up to 80 pages long,” Hanlon said. “Sometimes there’s an address located with initials. Even though initials in theory protect the identity of the child sex victim, with today’s technology if you have an address and initials you may be able to find that child sex victim’s name. So we’re trying as much as possible to be sensitive.”
In addition to being visible in public court records, Clerk’s Office staff repeatedly handed physical copies of case files to CBS 2 producers without verifying their contents. To remedy this, Hanlon said the Clerk’s office will begin putting sex crime case files in special red folders to ensure they aren’t released like regular cases.
The sheer scale of the task facing the Clerks’ office staff is why the new legislation is needed to ensure this never happens again, Hanlon said.
Lightford said she’s confident the bills will become law.
“I don’t see any reason as to why it would be a challenge to get passed the legislature,” she said.
Martinez and Lightford both said they hope this law provides peace of mind to survivors of sexual violence.MORE NEWS: Man And Woman Dead In Naperville Murder-Suicide
“In many cases, that trauma still exists, it just doesn’t go away over a period of time when you’ve been victimized,” Lightford said. “As legislators, you know, it’s our duty to at least give them some type of safety and security with their information.”