What a youth court judge didn’t want the media to know

Matthew and Miranda Harrington with their 9-year-old son on Dec. 14.
Matthew and Miranda Harrington with their 9-year-old son on Dec. 14. wmuller@sunherald.com

The situation at a house in the Bayside Park community was “of such an emergency nature,” according to the youth court, that Child Protection Services was ordered in September to forcibly enter the home to try to seize three children who lived there with their parents.

It was a situation Hancock County Youth Court Judge Steve Maggio wanted no one else, especially the media, to know about. Maggio placed a gag order on the parents, Miranda and Matthew Harrington, and everyone else who attended the hearing, prohibiting them from speaking about the case “with anyone to include the media,” the order said.

Only one sentence long, the gag-order language was inserted among other orders in the two-page judgment that resulted from the couple’s first hearing in youth court.

“They wouldn’t let me say anything,” Miranda Harrington said, referring to the judge and prosecutor. “(They) just asked me questions.”

She recalled the hearing lasted about two hours. During that time, the judge suppressed two of the most fundamental liberties the Harringtons enjoy as American citizens — the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and the 14th Amendment right to raise a family without state interference.

So what kind of severe abuse had the children suffered to prompt such swift action by the youth court?

Apparently none. The judge ordered the children returned to their parents the following week and later closed the case. No abuse or neglect allegations appeared in the emergency removal order, the shelter order or the reunification order.

Constitutional considerations

Maggio’s use of a gag order in the Harrington case has raised ethical and constitutional questions. Legal experts and state legislators interviewed said the order appears to violate the First Amendment. Maggio did not return several calls and emails requesting comment.

State Rep. Timmy Ladner said he has begun an investigation into the Harrington case, as well as another youth court case in which Maggio placed someone under a gag order. Ladner sits on the Legislature’s investigative committee PEER — Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review.

It’s unknown how many gag orders Maggio has issued in child-welfare cases or when they were issued. The Harrington case began in early September, just a few weeks after the Sun Herald published “Fostering Secrets,” a six-part investigation that presented evidence of children taken into custody based on unsubstantiated claims of child abuse, and of children being sexually abused while in foster care.

A case in Jackson County Youth Court made national headlines a few years ago and involved a gag order similar to the one in the Harrington case.

In the Jackson County case, undocumented immigrant Cirila Baltazar Cruz gave birth at Singing River Hospital, and child-welfare workers immediately seized the child and reported Cruz to immigration authorities for deportation. The youth court initiated proceedings to terminate her parental rights, but the Southern Poverty Law Center stepped in to defend her.

The baby was returned to Cruz a year later, and with media attention surrounding the case, the youth court sought to keep it confidential by issuing a gag order, which Cruz challenged in the Mississippi Supreme Court.

In 2013, the Supreme Court overturned the gag order, declaring it an unconstitutional prior restraint on the First Amendment. Prior restraint occurs when government suppresses speech before the speech is uttered.

In reaching its conclusion, the Supreme Court said gag orders are valid only if a court first holds a hearing of the evidence to analyze the necessity and effects of a potential gag order. The court must determine if there is a compelling interest “of the highest order” that would justify a gag order. It must then narrowly tailor the gag order to be the least restrictive possible.

The precedent noted in the Cruz case would apply to the Harrington case, said Ridgeland attorney Kelly Williams, an expert on child-welfare law. This year, Williams became the first attorney in Mississippi to be certified as a child welfare law specialist by the National Association of Counsel for Children.

“While the facts differ a little, the case is clear that due process requires a (gag order) hearing wherein the court goes through a balancing test,” she said. “So if Hancock County is issuing gag orders without a hearing, then, in my opinion, that is error.”

The youth court in the Cruz case justified the gag order to serve the confidentiality of its proceedings and “the best interest of the child.”

However, the Supreme Court found those reasons insufficient to trump the First Amendment.

“We find that there exists no imminent danger to a compelling interest of such magnitude that the restraint on the parties’ speech would be warranted,” the Supreme Court said.

CPS’ ground zero

The Harringtons said CPS first contacted them after their 5-year-old daughter made a comment at school: The girl allegedly said she babysat her 9-year-old brother.

The couple allowed a caseworker to inspect their home, who told them afterward she didn’t believe the 5-year-old’s comment was anything to take seriously. Nevertheless, the caseworker told the couple they had to take drug tests before the case could be closed, Miranda Harrington said.

Things took a turn when Miranda, who had a head full of hair extensions, asked the drug-testing facility to take a hair follicle sample from elsewhere on her body. She said the caseworker became frustrated and accused her of disrupting the investigation.

The Harringtons were not under any kind of court order at the time.

When asked why drug screening was necessary, the caseworker told her it was because they lived in the Bayside Park community, Miranda said. Later that night, CPS showed up at their home with the emergency removal order.

Bayside Park has become ground zero for CPS cases in Hancock County. The subdivision west of Waveland is one of the lowest-income communities in the county.

In a 2015 interview, Hancock County Youth Court Judge Elise Deano said an overwhelming majority of child-protection cases come out of Bayside Park.

Matthew Harrington said many residents there have had encounters with CPS.

“They think because you live in Bayside, you must be on drugs,” he said.

Aside from Matthew Harrington testing positive for marijuana on one test, the couple passed each of their drug screens, which included urinalysis, hair follicle and even fingernail clipping tests, according to lab records. The court order named a specific facility to handle the screenings and made the couple personally pay for them, one of which cost more than $200.

The Hancock County Youth Court’s aggressive drug-testing policy is unlike any other in the state, and was a point of criticism in a 2015 report from the Legislature’s investigative committee.

‘It’s just wrong’

State Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, said he plans to introduce legislation in January to reform some of the strict confidentiality statutes cloaking youth courts.

Bennett has helped many of his constituents get through similar child-welfare issues. He said the Harrington case fits the profile of every other case he has dealt with.

“I’m not saying this to be offensive, but it’s like they go after a certain kind of people,” he said. “It’s always lower-income folks who aren’t as educated as some of the rest of us.”

He said he thinks the system is targeting residents of lower socioeconomic classes, most of whom don’t know their legal rights and cannot afford legal representation. The cases, most of which are considered child neglect, are usually the result of poverty, he said.

He said the gag order in the Harrington case is an example of the system trying to protect itself.

“It’s just wrong,” Bennett said. “It’s morally wrong, ethically wrong, legally wrong — just wrong on every level.”