By Samah Assad, Christopher Hacker, Brad Edwards
CHICAGO (CBS) — The names and other personal information of child sex crime victims remained visible to the public nearly three months after CBS 2 first reported Cook County court officials violated state law by failing to conceal them from public view. Now, officials say public access to more than 10,000 cases of child sexual abuse and assault has finally been restricted.
CBS 2 first notified the person charged with protecting those victims' privacy in court records, then-Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, in September. But Brown refused to restrict access to those cases for more than a month after being told about the problem. She only committed to doing so after Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx threatened to sue her for violating an Illinois law that says the information must be removed.
In a statement, the new Circuit Court Clerk, former State Senator Iris Martinez, said she was "appalled to learn that the names and private information of child sex crime victims" was visible to the public. She said she and her staff were told Brown's administration had restricted access to all the cases that contained minor victims' names.
But when CBS 2 checked again in January, reviewing more than 100 additional child sex crime cases, there were more than a dozen victims' names still visible.
Martinez was "shocked" when CBS 2 told her the information was still there, she said in a statement. She told her staff to immediately restrict access to all the documents — a process which should be finished by Monday, the statement said.
There were more than 800 reports of sexual assault or abuse of children during the four years CBS 2 reviewed, and court records stretch back decades, meaning there could potentially have been hundreds of young victims' information sitting in court records available to the public at the Daley Center downtown.
In October, CBS 2 first reported on cases it discovered while reviewing sexual assault records for a single year. They contained full names, phone numbers and even home addresses for children as young as 5 years old who were sexually abused. At the time, CBS 2 warned Brown that there were likely many more cases than the ones uncovered from that year.
In January, CBS 2 went back to the Clerk's office and reviewed a random sample of 120 cases from four additional years. While those cases CBS 2 previously sent to Brown had been restricted from public view, information for 15 additional child victims — with one as young as 4 years old – was still in public records.
That shouldn't be possible. The 1986 Privacy of Child Victims of Criminal Sexual Offenses Act spells it out clearly: any records available to the public "shall be restricted to exclude the identity of any child who is a victim" of a sexual crime.
Char Rivette, Executive Director of the Chicago Children's Advocacy Center, said she was "completely shocked" when she first found out this information was visible to the public. Now, months later, she said she's outraged the information still hasn't been removed.
"To say that I'm disappointed would be putting it lightly," Rivette said. "I feel like this is a critical issue that should've been put to the top of to-do list … I'm pretty disappointed that after months, you know, this is still a problem."
Maria Nanos, a social worker who worked on child sex abuse cases for more than a decade, called the need for privacy "the heartbeat" of the issues victims and their families face.
"I've seen those kids that were abused as children, and they're [now] in their twenties, and they feel like they have the scarlet letter," Nanos said. "They feel like everybody already knows, and if they knew that somebody could know by going to court, that would be devastating."
Nanos, who conducted hundreds of forensic interviews with child victims during her career, said she feels that she was "cheated" by the revelation these records were public.
"All I have is my word," Nanos said. "And if I tell kids or parents that their information is protected, and now I'm hearing it isn't, it makes me angry. I feel responsible in some way. I hope there is some outrage, public outrage."
After CBS 2 notified Martinez' predecessor, Dorothy Brown, of the problem in September, her office resisted taking any action at first. Instead, her staff made several legally dubious claims about Illinois Supreme Court rules they claimed absolved them of responsibility.
CBS 2 found those rules — which focus on sensitive information like social security and bank account numbers — weren't relevant. Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx said those rules clearly didn't apply, and even threatened to sue Brown to ensure her office complied with the law.
Brown continued to assert it wasn't her office's responsibility to fix the records, arguing instead that she needed special authority to do so — a claim the State's Attorney's office rejected. Instead, after Foxx and Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans called on Brown to act, Brown said her office "would be willing to program our computer system to restrict access to an entire Child Victim Act case."
The steps Brown's staff took fell "woefully short," Martinez said in a statement.
While Brown's staff programmed the system to successfully restrict about 800 cases from public view, her office also failed to identify thousands of other cases that contained child victims' information, leaving the cases CBS 2 found in January visible, according to the statement. When they reviewed the steps Brown's office took, Martinez' staff "discovered an additional 10,000+ cases," that Brown's office had missed, the statement said.
It appears little was done to ensure victims' information in future cases was protected, either. In addition to the 14 victims' information CBS 2 found in cases from previous years, there was also a new case, filed in January, that contained the full name of a 16-year-old victim.
Martinez said her staff is taking steps to fix the problem for good: identifying other cases that were previously missed, updating the technology-based changes Brown's staff first implemented and changing the way copies of these records can be requested by the public.
Rivette said she understands "the wheels of government can be slow," especially with a new Clerk in office. But she fears this could cause real harm to victims, or discourage others from coming forward in the future.
"What I wouldn't want is for this to be an alarm bell, you know — for any victim, for that matter, child or adult — to then not report," Rivette said.
Nanos echoed that concern, saying "with 100 percent certainty" that this could discourage victims from coming forward.
"It's hard enough to convince a family to formalize, to band together and follow through with charges against person," Nanos said. "But if they knew that their information was going to be on the books forever, and that you or I could walk into court and get all of their private information ... I don't know how we would convince them to move forward. I don't know who would. I wouldn't."
Nanos said the release of this private information indicates a deeper problem with the justice system: most victims of crime are adults, so it isn't designed to handle cases involving minors.
"If you think about it, the criminal court system barely works with minors," Nanos said. "They have hundreds of thousands of sheets of paper that get passed between judges and lawyers ... and when there's a case involving a minor, it's getting buried."
Read the Clerk's full statement:
In October 2020, I, like everyone else, was appalled to learn that the names and private information of child sex crime victims could be viewed and made available through a computer search at any of the public access terminals of the Cook County Circuit Court Clerk's Office.
One of the first items I inquired about upon coming into the Circuit Court Clerk's Office on December 1, 2020, was confirming that this highly sensitive case file issue was addressed. My staff and I were informed that the prior Clerk developed a process in which technology was used to place a code on these case files to restrict access to documents which contain information leading to the identity of the child sex crime victims.
On Wednesday, January 20, 2021, my office had a call with CBS2 and I was shocked to learn that you were able to view and obtain documents that should have been restricted under Illinois' Privacy of Child Victims of Criminal Sexual Offenses Act. We immediately underwent a thorough investigation of past practices and processes and determined that the prior Clerk's process to restrict the identity of child sex victims failed woefully short; only 800 files were identified as containing documents that should have been restricted. Our investigation discovered an additional 10,000+ cases in which the identity of the child sex victim should be restricted under the Privacy of Child Victims of Criminal Sexual Offenses Act.
My Office is fixing the technology and programming used by the prior Clerk in order to restrict the viewing of these highly sensitive documents on public access terminals, and to change the way these files can be requested and viewed physically. We expect that the necessary technology, programming, and file request process changes should be completed by Monday morning.
CBS 2's investigation into sexual assault.
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