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By Samah Assad, Chris Hacker, Brad Edwards
CHICAGO (CBS) — Two bills that strengthen privacy protections for sexual assault victims in Illinois were signed into law Friday.
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The legislation was prompted by a months-long CBS 2 investigation that found the personal identifiers of child sexual assault victims – names, addresses, phone numbers and more – were visible in publicly-available court documents in Cook County.
That shouldn’t have been able to happen, according to legislation already on the books at that time. Then-Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown’s failure to restrict the information violated a state law, the Privacy of Child Victims of Criminal Sexual Offenses Act of 1986, CBS 2 found.
Senate Bill 2339 and Senate Bill 2340, signed by Governor JB Pritzker today, aim to prevent this from happening again.
While the 1986 law already says the personal information of child sexual assault victims must be restricted to a list of authorized individuals, such as members of the court and police officers, SB 2339 requires a court order for anyone outside that group who wants to obtain the information. Other information about the case, including proceedings and defendant information, would remain public.
SB 2339 also clarifies that the responsibility of restricting the information in case files falls on the clerks of circuit courts in the state.
The second piece of legislation, SB 2340, is a new law that expands those same protections to adult victims of criminal sexual assault.
“It was important for me to ensure our clerks have clear tools to keep victims’ information private for their safety and to ensure they maintain their rights to their own stories,” said newly elected Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez, who spearheaded the bill. “No one should be at risk of having their traumatic experience made public against their will or knowledge.”
Martinez, who spent 20 years in the Senate before becoming Clerk, drew on her connections in Springfield and collaborated with State Senator and Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford on the new legislation. Lightford introduced the bill in April.
“Survivors of sexual assault should be the only ones allowed to tell their stories,” Lightford said. “Their privacy should come first, and only they know how best to overcome their trauma.”
CBS 2 first came upon the private information of child victims while reviewing case files for a different story. In addition to being visible in public court records, Clerk’s office staff handed physical copies of case files to CBS 2 producers on multiple occasions, without verifying their contents.
When CBS 2 brought its findings to then-Clerk Brown in September of 2020, Brown failed to restrict the cases for weeks. Her spokesperson repeatedly denied it was the Clerk’s responsibility to fix the issue, even though the records in question are maintained by the Clerk’s office. Brown eventually committed to fixing the issue after Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx threatened to sue.
But CBS 2 checked again in January 2021 and found, while Brown’s office had restricted the private information in some cases, they also failed to restrict thousands of others that fell under the 1986 statute. At the time of those findings, Brown was no longer in office, and Martinez had taken the helm.
In a previous interview, Martinez said she was shocked by CBS 2’s findings.
“When I was told there was thousands, tens of thousands, I was shocked,” Martinez said. “Under my watch, I’m not going to ignore it. I’m going to address it.”
Clerk’s Office staff are now working to painstakingly examine each page of a case file, looking for any victims’ names, addresses, phone numbers and other information. They’re starting with active cases and working backwards, with cases dating back years. Martinez also said her office will begin putting sex crime case files in special red folders to ensure they aren’t released like regular cases.
A spokesperson said the sheer scale of the task facing the Clerks’ office staff is why the new legislation is needed to ensure this never happens again.
CBS 2 reviewed laws across the country and found, while there are some laws related to sexual assault victims, the proposed legislation in Illinois, if passed, would be the first of its kind.
Many states had laws against releasing private information through public records requests, but had no protections for court records. Those that did often lacked specifics, such as in Nebraska, where state law says public officers aren’t allowed to release private information but doesn’t say how the records should be protected.
The new laws in Illinois will go into effect Jan. 1, 2022.
CBS 2’s Investigation into Sexual Assault Victims’ Privacy
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Source: CBS Chicago