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Freedom to speak can lead to reform

Monday, September 24, 2001

Nicholas Scoppetta could have stopped open juvenile court hearings in New York.

Shortly after Scoppetta took over the New York child welfare agency that bore the brunt of criticism for little Elisa Izquierdo's death, the state's chief justice ordered juvenile court hearings to be opened. If Scoppetta's lawyers had then allied with those who represent children to petition for closure of each hearing, the pleas would have been hard for judges to resist.

If anyone might have been expected to try to protect vulnerable children through closed hearings, it would have been Scoppetta, who spent his formative years as a foster child in a group home.

But he didn't.

Instead, Scoppetta directed his staff lawyers to seek closed hearings only in extraordinary circumstances where harm to the child was absolutely clear.

He did that because he believed his agency would benefit from the coverage. If the media got into hearings, they would report the agency's explanation for its actions, and Scoppetta had learned the value of getting his side of the story told.

That lesson had come from telling his side when a child died or was horribly injured. The New York legislature had given him and other child welfare agency directors in New York authority to speak about such cases after Scoppetta's predecessor had frustrated lawmakers by refusing to answer their questions about Elisa's death, citing the state's confidentiality regulations.

The new law allowed Scoppetta to avoid stonewalling. Now, when something terrible happens, he acknowledges it and promises corrections. "That is the minimum you owe the public," he says.

That freedom to speak, in addition to open court hearings, helped him get what he wanted, he says.

"Ultimately, in trying to reform a system like the child welfare system, which has been terribly dysfunctional for so many years, openness and attention focused on the system are extremely important.

"The media, paying attention to what is not working in government, can make a real difference. Whether one agrees or not with a particular paper's version of what is happening, the debate, the airing of it, is generally productive.

"I do not look forward to those calls from the media because I know that, as a general proposition, they are not calling to compliment me. But that goes with the turf, and the media attention has been extremely helpful to us in implementing reform."

He acknowledges the potential dangers: "Opening it up does leave children vulnerable to an irresponsible press. But it is a tradeoff. There are benefits to an open system that far outweigh the potential down side."

And, he says, "We have not experienced a downside."

You can reach Barbara White Stack at bwhitestack@post-gazette.com.



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