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DCYF, CASA, Spaulding Youth Center lose lawsuit to silence Union Leader on toddler injured in foster care

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 21. 2018 7:07AM

MANCHESTER — Superior Court Judge Kenneth C. Brown on Friday afternoon denied a motion to prevent the Union Leader from reporting on a lawsuit filed by the mother of a toddler who suffered traumatic brain injury at the hands of a foster care family.

The ruling came a few hours after an emergency hearing in Hillsborough County Superior Court-North in which the newspaper was challenged by several entities including the state’s child protection agency, DCYF; the private social-service Spaulding Youth Center organization; the volunteer court-advocacy group CASA; and lawyers representing the mother who filed the suit three years ago.

The story centers on expert reports and records that lawyers inadvertently added to the court file in the case. They sat in a court file for months, even after a judge ordered them removed.

Lawyers for agencies and the family said the Union Leader should not have accessed the material.

Union Leader lawyer Gregory V. Sullivan said the records were lawfully obtained — a reporter was granted access to the file and scanned portions of it.

He said that newspapers enjoy First Amendment protections, and courts have a long-standing aversion to prior restraint — the practice of a government prohibiting a newspaper or any other media from publishing a story.

Judge Brown agreed.

“The New Hampshire Constitution states that “(f)ree speech and liberty of the press are essential to the security of freedom in a state . . . (and) ought ... to be inviolably preserved,” Brown noted.

He also cited rulings in which prior restraint of the press was struck down, including a New Hampshire case in which the court found:

“Prior restraints are inherently suspect because they threaten the fundamental right to free speech and are the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.”

The New Hampshire Sunday News story details how DCYF and the Spaulding Center ignored red flags and rushed through the licensing of a Northfield foster home when they were faced with an emergency placement.

Six months later, the toddler suffered traumatic brain injury; today he struggles with medical and developmental issues. The foster mother, Noreen Stohrer, eventually pleaded guilty to child endangerment. She had a troubled history, including the death of a foster child under her care in New York state, the reports said.

The lawsuit was filed under seal in accordance with state law, but the judge overseeing the case has allowed some portions of it to become public. For example, Judge Gillian Abramson has unsealed and heavily redacted an order that dismisses CASA from the suit.

In court, Manchester lawyer Scott Harris said the reports were generated as part of the pretrial discovery process, and such discovery materials are never filed with a judge or court.

“What we’re asking for is essentially to put the genie back in the bottle,” he said. He said the Union Leader had a right to the story if it obtained the records legitimately. He claimed a Union Leader reporter obtained the records unlawfully; Sullivan disputed that, noting they were in a public file.

The Union Leader has filed to unseal the entire case. Brown scheduled a hearing for Aug. 2 to consider doing so.

Assistant New Hampshire Attorney General Anthony Galdieri represented DCYF. Galdieri said he does not want to prevent the Union Leader from exercising its First Amendment rights. But he wants the copies of the reports returned so they can be destroyed.

CASA lawyer Dan Deane said he didn’t want CASA to suffer from the publicity and guilt by association. The lawyer for Spaulding Youth Center, Justin Veiga, said the organization is most concerned with the names of minors being publicized; he said an article could also damage Spaulding’s reputation.

Sullivan said the Union Leader will not publish the name of the boy, nor detailed medical reports. But it will report about the injuries.

“Editorial discretion is what’s appropriate in this case,” Sullivan said, “not prior restraint.”

Courts Public Safety Health Social issues State Government

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