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Mothers stir up the media to get back their children

Tuesday, September 25, 2001

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Six hours after Rita Lopez's baby was born on Feb. 17, caseworkers took him from her.Though the child welfare agency in Albuquerque, N.M., had removed her seven other children a year earlier, caseworkers had promised she could keep this one after he arrived.

 
 
OPEN JUSTICE

Day Three
Last of three parts

If names are public, are kids harmed?

Critics say reforms needed in closed courts

Day Two

Indiana: Visibility boosts credibility

Illinois: In this state, long-standing acceptance

Freedom to speak can lead to reform

Day One

The trend toward opening juvenile court is now gaining momentum

   
 

When the agency broke that pledge, suddenly contending Lopez could not care for a baby, her friends were furious. They complained to the news media, following the example of a another Albuquerque parent just months earlier when she felt her child was wrongly taken.

That parent was Adela Martinez-Regino, whose 120-pound 3-year-old was removed but returned three months later when agency officials failed to prove abuse or neglect caused the unusual weight.

In both cases, the official response to the parental protests and press coverage was swift and harsh. New Mexico's director of child welfare charged Martinez-Regino with caring more for the media limelight than the return of her daughter. A judge issued a gag order to shut her up. And lawyers and child welfare officials accused her and Lopez of violating state confidentiality statutes by talking about their children -- though those laws are aimed at child welfare officials not parents.

Privacy advocates believe that some parents accused of abusing their children conspire with the media to hurt the youngsters again by making the children's names household words and talk show fodder. The stories and broadcast transcripts are eternally available on the Internet, where future classmates or co-workers may find them years later. The harm from such exposure, the advocates contend, is irrevocable.

Parents say that's hogwash coming from agencies, judges and lawyers using confidentiality laws to shield their own improper actions from scrutiny.

They argue they do not lose their right to free speech and protest just because someone has accused them of something. In addition, parents say they know what is best for their children and it may not be what some stranger from the child welfare department thinks is right.

As more juvenile hearings open to public and press across the country, it would be ironic if the court created 100 years ago to protect children actually harmed them by exposing ugly family secrets. The question, then, is whether publicity really does hurt.

A helping hand

Rita Lopez is mildly mentally retarded and might never have thought of crying to the press when a caseworker took her healthy, 9-pound, 2-ounce newborn from her arms.

But Lopez also is a personable woman who, despite her limitations, raised well-behaved, caring children, even by child welfare accounts, and who accumulated well-placed friends over the years. One of them, Tony Padilla, a Bernalillo County worker with experience in public relations, called the television stations. Although baby David Ray Lopez's name and face were broadcast and published for days, Padilla is glad he made the call. "I knew the media would work miracles," he said. "This helped [David] to come home."

Caseworkers had taken Lopez's other children because she had too many animals and too small a home. The children weren't closely supervised. The two oldest, who were mentally retarded, missed too much school. There'd been 22 complaints about Lopez over the years.

Lopez got rid of most of the animals, keeping a dog, a couple of cats, and some of the oldest boy's beloved chickens. She moved to a bigger house and began classes to improve her parenting skills. Though the judge still would not return her children, caseworkers told her she could keep the infant she was carrying.

After her baby was taken and her friends went to the media, Lopez got a new lawyer and a different judge, and he sent the baby home.

Case of the overweight child

The friends of Adela Martinez-Regino believe publicity helped her as well. They think that after people heard her toddler was taken because she was overweight, public pressure forced agency officials to return the child. Martinez-Regino, and her husband, Miguel Regino, had never abused their daughter and had, in fact, sought a medical reason for her startling height and weight virtually since the day she was born.

Martinez-Regino is adamant that going to the press was justified, even though her daughter, Anamarie, became a public figure.

"I think it is our right. I am the mother. I know there are consequences because her face is out there and everyone recognizes her. But I am her mother and I should be able to say what I want and stand for my daughter. It was for her best interest. Who knows better than me?"

Ultimately, the judge in the case, Tommy Jewell, annoyed by the publicity and crush of reporters at his courthouse, imposed a gag order on everyone involved and barred the media from hearings. Proceedings in New Mexico are open to reporters if they agree not to use names. Because they'd already named the child, Jewell locked them out.

Martinez-Regino objects to being gagged to this day, "They way they shut us up was not good and was not right. It was because they had something to hide. They knew they had done something wrong."

Her friend, Ramona Gaona, who contacted the television stations, agrees. "Going to the media was a call for help," she says. She does not believe the publicity caused permanent harm to Anamarie. No one, she says, will remember Anamarie's name in a year if there are no more stories.

Media exposure to the case gave Anamarie's parents some small sense of empowerment, but after spending months in the spotlight, they acutely appreciate the value of anonymity. And they discovered there are other consequences for taking a case to the court of public opinion.

Kari Converse, the lawyer appointed to represent Anamarie, tried to get their lawyer, Troy Prichard, held in contempt of court for talking about the case. Both Converse and Deborah Hartz, the state's director of child welfare, criticized the family and Prichard privately.

And it took three months for the child welfare agency to return Anamarie, even though it had no proof of abuse or neglect. Prichard believes animosity against the Regino family for going to the media contributed to the delay.

Martin Esquival, the lawyer who represented the newspapers trying to get into the closed hearing, expressed shock at the agency's response to publicity.

"The Children, Youth and Families Department says, 'We know what is better for this child than you do and publicity is a bad thing.' " They make this pronouncement, Esquival notes, about children they barely know.

It is the contention of privacy advocates that only a bad parent would expose his child to publicity, Esquival says. But both he and Prichard say if their own children were taken they'd have a hard time keeping quiet. "If it is me and I feel I am being wronged, I am going to let the media write about it," Esquival says.

Jewell, who issued the gag order, and Converse do not agree with him.

"The privacy of this kid is a very important thing. Do we make an exception because the mom does not think privacy is important? Was it abusive for the mom to disclose salacious details of the child's dilemma publicly?" Jewell asks.

Both he and Converse say that laws forbidding disclosure of information in child welfare files prohibit families from discussing what agencies have accused them of doing. "At some point when you reach the judicial process, your right of free speech is limited," Jewell says.

Converse denounced the media for using the child's name and the parents for providing it. The parents, she says, "stigmatized my client to further their agenda."

Yet, just two days after every local TV station and newspaper reported on the other celebrity child welfare case in Albuquerque, she conceded that she could not remember the name of Rita Lopez's son.

Official silence

New Mexico's child welfare director never referred to Anamarie by name when she discussed the case at a conference of child welfare agency officials in Washington, D.C., in July. Instead, Deborah Hartz called the child the "fat baby" throughout the talk.

That reference to the little girl infuriates her mother. "The thing I hate is when they call her 'the obese baby,' " Adela Martinez-Regino says of Anamarie, "They are not looking at her as a person."

Hartz said at the conference that there were times during the "fat baby" case and the Lopez case when she wanted to defend the agency.

Within hours after Judge Michael Martinez ordered child welfare officials to return Rita Lopez' baby to her, Hartz told him she felt she should be able to talk to the media because Lopez already had breached the baby's confidentiality. Martinez reminded her that state law prohibited her from discussing specific cases.

She kept silent.

Two days later, she said she was glad she hadn't talked.

"New Mexico is a small state. People know each other. They will remember names," she explained

Yet, at that moment in February, less than 48 hours after she'd called Martinez about the Rita Lopez case, she couldn't recall the baby's name.



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