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TV Station Gagged

March 23, 2008 permalink

The US bill of rights protects freedom of the press, but that means nothing in family court. Judge Susan Orr Henderson barred an Indianapolis TV station, WXIN channel 59, from airing an interview with aggrieved parent Mark McGaha.

Through the internet you can still see the story on website Honk For Kids. Viewers with Apple Quicktime can watch Mark McGaha at HonkforKids Gallery of Heroes. While there, listen to the story of the death in foster care of Miyanna Renae Chowning.



March 23, 2008

Expert: Ruling amounts to censorship

Fountain County judge's order blocked an Indy TV station from airing a parent's criticism of child welfare agency

By Tim Evans,

Mark McGaha wanted to share his frustrations about the Department of Child Services with the public, but he never got the chance.

McGaha did an interview with an Indianapolis TV station, but a Fountain County judge issued a restraining order barring the station from airing his complaints or even showing his face -- apparently without even having seen the footage.

The segment about family advocacy group Honk For Kids was broadcast March 13, without McGaha's comments and with his face blocked out in a group shot of parents.

A legal scholar called Judge Susan Orr Henderson's action unconstitutional and said it "borders on judicial misconduct."

"Quite simply, a judge does not have the authority to stop the press from publishing or airing a story," said Henry Karlson, a professor at Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis. "Any person has a right to contact the press and say a public agency is not treating them right."

Karlson said the judge's action amounted to "prior restraint," or government censorship, which is a violation of the First Amendment.

Dawn Robertson, spokeswoman for Honk For Kids, said Henderson's actions underscore the group's concerns about the way families involved with the child welfare system are treated.

"These are the kinds of abuses of power people across Indiana are dealing with every day," she said.

Robertson said the public is not aware of the extent of those problems because most aspects of child welfare cases are confidential. That means records and court proceedings typically are not open to the public or media.

A disabled veteran and single father of four, McGaha, 37, said he thinks the court and Department of Child Services are out to get him because he stood up to workers he contends have treated him and his four children unfairly.

After the TV segment aired, Honk For Kids asked the station, WXIN (Channel 59), why McGaha's face had been blurred and was told of the restraining order. That was the first that anyone, including McGaha, had heard about the judge's action.

Gavin Maliska, news director at WXIN, said station officials discussed challenging the order, which was issued the day the segment was to air, but decided McGaha's contributions weren't essential to the story.

"It came down to principle versus practical," he said. "If it would have affected what we were trying to do with the story, we probably would have had a different outcome."

Maliska said the court order was sought by the guardian ad litem who represents McGaha's children in a Child in Need of Services case in Fountain County.

The guardian ad litem, Covington attorney Sue White, did not return calls from The Indianapolis Star, and the court would not release a copy of the order. Bailiff Dianne Cotten said it was part of the confidential records of the CHINS case and could not be made public.

However, a copy obtained by The Star showed that Henderson barred WXIN "from broadcasting any portion of an interview involving Mark McGaha and his minor children until such time as the guardian ad litem and/or court has an opportunity to review" the report.

The order said the injunction was issued to protect the best interests of the children. Karlson said that does not provide the constitutional standard for such an order.

"I see no basis on which a prior restraint could have been imposed," he said. "He has an absolute right to complain about his treatment by the court or any other government agency."

McGaha could appeal the judge's ruling, Karlson said, "but it's basically a moot point" because the opportunity to air his complaints on TV has passed.

"I don't know what's more outrageous: the judge ordering this and not knowing it violates the Constitution, or knowing and still issuing the injunction," Karlson said.

James W. Payne, who heads DCS, said he could not talk about the specifics of McGaha's case. He said DCS has no control over the judge's actions and that parents who have a beef with the agency or court have a number of avenues to have their concerns addressed.

McGaha's children have been in foster care for more than a year. He said they were removed based on allegations he had missed "a couple doctor appointments" for his children, two of whom have ongoing medical problems.

"That was taken care of long before they (DCS) ever got involved," said McGaha, who lives in Lafayette. "After that, I did everything they said, but they kept coming after me."

As he grew more frustrated and began challenging some of the actions of agency caseworkers, McGaha said he was accused of sexually assaulting his children, a charge he denies. Then, he said, a caseworker threatened to take away his girlfriend's children if she continued to associate with him.

McGaha said he has never been charged in connection with any sexual allegations, but DCS continues to make the claim against him.

"I dared to say, 'Hey, wait a minute, this is not right,' " he said, "and now they are trying to take my kids from me for good."

Source: Indianapolis Star