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Court: CHINS records aren't available to media

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The circumstances that led to two siblings being deemed as children in need of services and the media attention their family received don't justify the trial court allowing the media access to the children's CHINS records, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled today.

Siblings K.B. and B.L. were removed from their parents' care in April after criminal charges were filed against the mother, Amanda Brooks Lay, and the father, Terry Lay, for the death of their child, K.L., and the battery and neglect of K.B. and B.L. Shortly after charges were filed, the Vanderburgh trial court granted the media access to K.B. and B.L.'s CHINS records, citing Indiana Code Section 32-39-2-10 and previous access granted to CHINS cases.

In In the Matter of: K.B. and B.L., Amanda Brooks Lay, mother v. Department of Child Services, No. 82A03-0806-JV-266, Amanda Lay challenged granting the media access to the records. Lay filed a motion to correct error. The Vanderburgh County Department of Child Services also shared its concerns of opening the records to the media but left the decision to the trial court's discretion. The court denied Lay's motion.

But the trial court should never have granted media access to records dealing with K.B. and B.L., because the investigatory report by the caseworker, which is governed by I.C. Section 31-33-18-2, doesn't allow for media representatives to access the report, wrote Judge Michael Barnes. The investigatory report is confidential and not to be made available to the public.

The trial court erred in releasing the records under I.C. Section 32-39-2-10. In its order, it said it was granting access to educate the public, address the community's interest in the welfare of the children, and give the public new insight into the workings of the trial court and DCS. While these are laudable goals, they are not reasons to release the records at the expense of K.B. and B.L, wrote Judge Barnes. These children are entitled to the same type of privacy that would be afforded to less high-profile CHINS cases, the judge continued.

Because there is not a specific ongoing threat to the safety or welfare of the community, the trial court abused its discretion in disclosing the CHINS records to the media.

The court also addressed the ambiguity in Indiana statute addressing under what circumstances the legislature intended any interested person to be able to access juvenile court records and invited the legislature to clarify the statute to ensure the confidentiality of legal records involving children.

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