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Me. L. Rev.


In most states, child welfare hearings and records are sealed or confidential. This means that by law, court hearings and records may not be observed. The same laws and court rules also preclude those who are authorized to enter and watch from discussing anything learned or observed in a closed courtroom or from a sealed court record with anyone not involved in the case. It is the restriction on speech—on telling stories about child welfare—with which this Article is concerned. I will argue in this Article that the insights of narrative theory and agenda-setting studies help us understand the damaging consequences of confidentiality laws. Child welfare is characterized by a single, “master narrative,” or overarching description of conditions and phenomena that explains, or purports to explain, the field.1 The master narrative gathers the stories of child welfare and unifies them into a single, coherent, commonly-accepted image. It is the way child welfare issues are understood. In short, the master narrative of child welfare depicts foster care as a haven for “child-victims”2 savagely brutalized by “deviant,”3

“monstrous”4 parents. Notwithstanding this shared public understanding, however, most children in foster care are alleged to have experienced neglect—deprivation of food, clothing, shelter, education, or another necessity of life—not physical abuse. There is also a growing understanding that some children in foster care ought not to be there at all. In addition, research and experience indicate that many maltreated children would be better off if simply left at home—with those responsible for the maltreatment—rather than placed in foster care.5

In Part II of this Article, I explain the concept of the master narrative, and present research about agenda-setting and issue-framing. I then present contrasting stories of child welfare, the “master narrative,” and an alternative story. The former reflects widespread popular conceptions of children, parents, the foster care system, and the executive and judicial branches of government; the alternative story is told by weaving the stories of individual children and parents with data and findings by child welfare researchers. In Part III, I set forth current laws and court rules that regulate admission to and disclosure of child welfare court hearings and records. In this Part, I share stories of two foster youths who sought to tell their own stories, but were confronted with attempts to silence them. In Part IV, I argue that confidentiality laws perpetuate the disjunction between the widely-accepted master narrative of child welfare and the alternative story of child welfare. I argue that confidentiality laws harm children and their parents by silencing their voices and suppressing their stories.