By MARY KATE MALONE and VIRGINIA BLACK
South Bend Tribune
3:39 PM EST, March 9, 2012
SOUTH BEND — A local judge ordered the release of phone records from the Department of Child Services’ child abuse hotline related to Tramelle Sturgis and his family — ending weeks of legal efforts by DCS to keep them out of the public realm.
The records, which St. Joseph Probate Court Judge Peter Nemeth ordered released on Wednesday, included four audio recordings of hotline calls and accompanying transcripts.
Two weeks after 10-year-old Tramelle was killed, The Tribune filed a public records request to DCS, requesting access to all department reports related to the boy and his family.
Although DCS records are generally confidential, state law provides for a release of documents in cases where a fatality has occurred.
The Tribune subsequently received 21 pages of reports showing previous DCS involvement with the family, specifically the department’s determination that the Sturgis children were "well-cared for" — six months before Tramelle was found beaten to death in the family’s home at 1130 W. Washington St.
But DCS did not provide one key piece of information: records of phone calls from the child abuse hotline in Indianapolis, which are now recorded and stored at the centralized call center.
In January, DCS Director James Payne told The Tribune during an interview that every call made to the centralized child abuse hotline is recorded and "kept forever."
The Tribune then filed another records request, asking for audio files and transcripts of calls made to the hotline about the Sturgis family.
But the department denied the request, arguing the records were confidential.
Soon after, an amendment was abruptly inserted into pending legislation — Senate Bill 286 — that specifically exempts an "audio recording of a telephone call to the child abuse hotline" from disclosure.
The Tribune, represented by local attorney Jerry Lutkus, filed a motion for the records, arguing the files were in fact releasable under the same law that permitted release of the original 21 pages of documents.
At a Feb. 9 hearing in Nemeth’s courtroom, DCS attorneys informed the judge of four phone recordings made to the hotline regarding Tramelle Sturgis, but that releasing the audio of the calls and the transcripts to the newspaper would jeopardize confidentiality promised to those who report child abuse and have a "chilling effect."
Lutkus said state law requires that records be censored by a judge to remove identifying information, but that the file itself was releasable.
"Though DCS contends the disclosure of public records could endanger children or cause potential abuse reporters to reconsider," Lutkus wrote in a court filing, "it is just as plausible that the disclosure of such records will raise community awareness of the blight of child abuse and engender public action to end it."
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