Our view: The facts of childhood deaths must not be hidden from society
At issue: The Colorado legislature is reviewing a proposed law that would withhold the details of childhood autopsies from public records
Our view: We believe to enact legislation that restricts the press from reporting the circumstances surrounding a childhood death diminishes society’s awareness of the prevalence of child abuse
There is nothing more heartbreaking than the death of a young child, unless it’s a death resulting from child abuse.
And it’s with that in mind that we oppose a bill under consideration in the Colorado State Legislature that would withhold juvenile autopsy reports from public release. We are not indifferent to the agony that parents and siblings experience when a family member is lost to criminal behavior — far from it.
Newspaper reporters absorb and process the accumulation of human tragedy they write about over time, less directly, but similarly to the way law enforcement personnel, child advocates and coroners do.
Editors of responsible community newspapers do not publish the details of autopsies on children who were abused for prurient reasons. Instead, they think long and hard and seek the counsel of colleagues before publishing those details. When they take that step, it is out of a commitment to ensuring members of our society are not oblivious to the violent crimes carried out against helpless children.
Juvenile autopsy reports can currently be withheld if it is determined disclosing the documents would cause “substantial injury to the public interest.”
We believe that to go further, and enact legislation that restricts the press from reporting the causes and circumstances of a childhood death to protect an already grieving family, is going too far. To do so would be to risk hiding, in a dark closet, the mortal peril that young children sometimes face. That would be a mistake, given that bringing those tragedies to light is one of the best ways to motivate society to increase protections for children at risk.
The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition reported last week that Colorado’s county coroners have requested the Colorado Open Records Act be revised to exclude the release of juvenile records.
“The families feel stigmatized, and they feel like every time it comes up, they have to relive the whole experience,” El Paso County Coroner Robert Bux said during testimony April 16 before the Senate Judiciary Committee. If the autopsy report is “out in the public domain,” he told legislators, “it’s very hard on family privacy.”
We have great respect for the role that coroners play, not just in responding to the scene of an unattended death, but in the compassionate way they interact with loved ones. But, that doesn’t mean we won’t extend ourselves to bring public attention to the issue of child abuse in our community.
Steamboat Pilot & Today used juvenile autopsy records to help report on the death of 3-year-old Austin Davis, who died March 27, 2014, from dehydration.
The Routt County Coroner’s Office sued the Steamboat Pilot & Today in an effort to not release the autopsy report, which eventually showed the boy died from extreme dehydration after his mother, Meghan McKeon, left him home alone for four days.
The newspaper successfully resisted that suit, and we believed then, and continue to believe we were standing up for the plight of abused children who cannot speak for themselves.
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