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Civic Skinny

September 27, 2012
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An editor’s son, an arrest, an article, an ethics issue


The rest of the story:

A couple of weeks ago, Fred Van Liew, a former prosecutor, wrote a piece on the op-ed page of The Des Moines Register wringing his hands over the case of “a bright and engaging 17-year-old, a boy with so much promise...a nearly straight-A student a year from college who attends Central Academy in Des Moines...a boy who had never had the slightest brush with the law, until recently.”

It turns out this anonymous but very bright, nearly straight-A student “wrongly processed some credit card applications” at the store where he was working, which is a pretty polite way of describing what he did, an action that the police called theft in the fourth degree. This let the boy pick up another $100 to $200 in incentive pay, which he wasn’t entitled to.

The store discovered this, and store security people questioned him, Van Liew wrote. After two hours in a small room with two security workers, he said, the honor student “wanting to get out of the room and get home to his parents...finally signed a confession.” The store people then called the police, who handcuffed him and sent him to the county juvenile detention center, where the staff called his parents and, a few hours later, released him. “A couple of weeks later, the boy and his parents met with a juvenile court officer who treated both boy and parents with respect,” Van Liew wrote.

Since he wanted “to get it over with,” the boy signed an “informal adjustment.” Under the juvenile justice section of the Iowa Code, an informal adjustment can take the place of a delinquency petition. In an informal adjustment, the child must admit to the charges but is not required to go on probation supervised by the judicial system. It is not a “conviction,” and most juvenile offenders choose this route.

Van Liew wrote the piece after a call from the boy’s mother. She was “distraught,” Van Liew wrote, when she called him after the arrest.

“When she called me, she wanted to tell me, all in one breath it seemed, what her son had done and how he had been treated. Her boy had not murdered anyone, he had not burglarized the home of an elderly couple, he had not assaulted and robbed someone. But he had done something wrong.”

“How could this have been handled differently?” the mother asked Van Liew, who now is a mediator and the director of the Center for Restorative Justice Practices in Des Moines. “Wasn’t there a better way? How many other boys have been treated this way? What about the boys who are not honor students? What about the boys of color? Her boy had accepted responsibility for his actions, but what about the store? What about the police? What should she tell her son?”

Van Liew apparently did not go to the store — it was Sears, according to the police report — or the police for their sides of the story, but he wrote his piece, which found a home on the Register’s op-ed page. Indeed, the Register ran it as part of “a series of editorials and essays on juvenile justice in the weeks and months to come.” If you had ideas to share, a sidebar noted, “please email Andie Dominick” at the newspaper.

Register editorial writer Andie Dominick is the mother of 17-year-old Jacob Wolfe.

Jacob Wolfe is “the bright and engaging 17-year-old,” the “boy with so much promise,” the “nearly straight-A student a year from college who attends Central Academy in Des Moines.” He is the boy who entered the informal adjustment agreement with juvenile authorities.

“Are there not ethics in journalism?” asked an email a lawyer sent to Cityview pointing out the issue. “Would this not be a salient fact that needed to be disclosed?” asked the lawyer, who long has watched juvenile justice in Iowa from a front-row seat. And in a parting shot, he added, “Well, it’s the Register, can’t expect ethics from them, can we?”

In fact, the Gannett ethics code is clear: “When unavoidable personal or business interests could compromise the newspaper’s credibility, such potential conflicts must be disclosed to one’s superior and, if relevant, to readers.” Some might say that anonymously running a lopsided story about your son’s arrest and using it as a centerpiece to criticize the juvenile justice system in the county is, first, avoidable. Second, it’s relevant to readers. Third, it compromises the newspaper’s credibility. Some might say.

Asked why the piece didn’t name Jacob Wolfe, Randy Evans, the thoughtful, veteran news guy who runs the editorial page, said:

“I was responsible for deciding to publish [Van Liew’s] article without using the name of the juvenile and without identifying the store whose employees interrogated the teen for more than two hours without allowing him to call his parents. I made those decisions because I believed the broader discussion of Iowa’s juvenile justice practices was more important than those details.”

The names of juvenile offenders, including those who sign informal adjustments, are subject to the Iowa open-records law, but it appears that no informal adjustment records ever appear on courts online. This appears to be because a different computer system is used for those. The Register might want to explore this as it continues its series.

That’s the rest of the story.

Well, not quite.

Told about the story, a Cityview reader — who knows his way around the Web — referred us back to Cityview itself and this Aug. 2 item about disbursements from various municipalities:

“Amount: $210.94

“To: Andrea Wolfe and Jacob Wolfe

“For: Payment to settle a property damage claim filed by Jacob Wolfe, 17, of Des Moines, after he was arrested for fraud and identity theft on June 27. During the arrest, many of his belongings were placed on the trunk of the police car. When Officer Darin Miller moved the items, the cell phone belonging to the boy’s mother, Andrea Wolfe, fell to the ground and was damaged. The amount paid was based on warranty replacement costs including tax.”

Andrea Wolfe is also known as Andie Dominick. She says her son has not been accused of committing any type of fraud or identity theft. Indeed, the city agrees with her and says it made a mistake on the reimbursement report, which is a pretty embarrassing and important mistake.

The guy who pointed out the Cityview item had his own comment on Van Liew’s piece:

It “dripped with white entitlement. Fucking dripped with it. What he described is how most people are arrested every day. He is shocked — shocked! — that the defendant was handcuffed and booked into a detention facility. That’s what happens when people are arrested. How dare the police treat a college-bound white boy from Central Academy whose mother has a master’s degree like that? Stuffing a kid into the back of a police car is for black kids from North, not for nice white boys with a year of AP credits already.”

Footnote: Fourth-degree theft in Iowa involves values of $200 to $500 and is a serious misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $1,875.

Second footnote: Although an informal adjustment is not a conviction, and someone who signs one can honestly say he has never been convicted of a crime, a person who agrees to one must disclose that in many circumstances, including when applying to take the Iowa bar exam.

That’s the rest of the story. ...

Here is a statement from Randy Evans in response to a request from Cityview:

“Fred Van Liew’s guest opinion article last month was not the beginning of the Register’s in-depth examination of juvenile justice issues in Iowa. This was the third article on the topic that he has written for the opinion pages in the past five months. I alone was responsible for deciding to publish all three of Fred’s articles. I commissioned him to write these because of his previous experience as one of the top assistants to Polk County Attorney John Sarcone and because of Fred’s more recent work with so-called ‘restorative justice’ alternatives in Iowa.

“The Register’s continuing attention to juvenile justice issues grows out of those articles of Fred’s and out of the many comments, questions and suggestions that we have received from readers since the publication of Fred’s articles. Newspapers have been conducting in-depth examinations of broad societal issues like this for decades. Historically, that is one of the most important roles newspapers occupy. It would be wrong for you to portray this as a matter of a Register employee launching a personal crusade or engaging in a personal vendetta because of some family matter. That simply is not true, and neither Editor Rick Green nor I ever would allow that to occur.”

In her response, Dominick said, “Nothing published in the Opinion section benefits any member of our staff.”

She added that she hopes Cityview continues “to read the juvenile justice work on the Opinion page, as there may be a lot for you to learn.” And that it disclose who wrote this issue of Civic Skinny. The answer to that: former Register editor and president Michael Gartner. CV



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