The Harris County Court System Can’t Keep Secrets About Little Maleah
The Public Deserves To Know What Went Wrong
A new Harris County family court judge has issued a gag order to keep the media from reporting what happened in court when the Department of Family and Protective Services tried to protect little Maleah Davis. The order is wrong, and it sends a horrible message about transparency in courts we all pay for.
Dolcefino Consulting believes you have a fundamental right to know what happened.
Last September 12th, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the parent entity of CPS, got a court order in the 308th Family Court to remove Maleah and her brother from her mother’s home after reports of abuse. The Houston news media has documented past allegations of physical abuse and neglectful supervision. The court records in our possession confirm it.
In February, just weeks after getting on the bench, Judge Ryan Salfiti signed an order returning Maleah to the home where she may in fact have been murdered. Her mother’s now ex-fiance is charged with tampering with a human corpse. Maleah’s body has not yet been found. Judge Salfiti is not elected, but an associate judge chosen by the new judge in the court, Gloria Lopez.
Last week, Dolcefino Consulting President Wayne Dolcefino legally purchased court records from the Harris County District Clerk’s website detailing the developments in the family court case that was set for a new hearing later this month. Some of the documents are marked confidential but were available for purchase by the public anyway.
“Since we had been instrumental in reporting on possible corruption in the 308th District Court while James Lombardino was on the bench, we were curious. Nothing more,” says Wayne Dolcefino, President of Dolcefino Consulting. “Our firm has often been hired to investigate relationships and injustice in the family court system, but in this case, we have no client, no dog in the fight, except for what is right.”
Late last week it appeared death had befallen little Maleah. On Friday, May 10, 2019, Judge Lopez issued a gag order to keep media organizations from reporting on the case, sealing the records we already had in our possession.
The public has a right to know.
A report filed by CPS on April 10, 2019 supports returning Maleah to her mother, but taxpayers were also paying a lawyer to represent the best interest of the children.
That lawyer came as no real surprise to us.
It was Jared Woodfill, the former Republican Party Chairman, who benefited from lots of court appointments while the Republican Judge James Lombardino was on the bench. Woodfill billed taxpayers $1,700 dollars during his five months of work representing the children.
That’s your money.
As you know, Woodfill’s law office was raided by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and a host of his clients have complained about Woodfill to Dolcefino Consulting.
Court documents don’t tell us if Woodfill fought the CPS recommendation to send the kids back to the mother’s house. It also may help explain why Judge Salfiti signed the order.
In April, CPS thought it was ok to return Maleah to her mom’s home.
That’s not the point.
Harris County taxpayers pay the judge’s salary, Woodfill’s salary, and pays for the operation of CPS. We must be able to know all the facts. Period.
“As a young reporter, I exposed failures in the Child Protection Services system, and I cannot stand by while the public is shut out of our legitimate role to watchdog how our money is spent,” says Dolcefino.
Judge Lopez didn’t return Maleah, but she has now tried to shroud this case in secrecy that is not justified.
The gag order was signed May 10th, 2019. It reads, “No person, including the parties, shall distribute, publish, continue to publish, broadcast, or continue to broadcast, in any fashion… the content or substance of any files, reports, records, communications… and/or Any other documents filed in this cause after July 12, 2016.” That’s when the case started.
“Any person who has notice of this Order and violates its provisions shall be subject to sanctions pursuant to its inherent powers, including contempt,” the order from Judge Lopez reads.
“We implore the judge to rescind her gag order. Let the sunshine in,” says Dolcefino. “This is not about second guessing what happened. It is about making sure the people know what happened, so we can protect children. We can’t turn the clock back for Maleah, but we have to have a full accounting of what happened – aside from a home that was obviously no place for a little girl.”
“We have applauded Judge Lopez for returning transparency to the courtroom after her election. With that responsibility comes the judgment to know that this gag order is the wrong call, this is not the way our courts have to operate,” says Dolcefino. “This is also not the way the First Amendment works.”
The 308th District Court Judge does have a right to be concerned that sensitive confidential information about little children had been available on the public website, but a prior restraint on the news media is not the way to do it. The public has a right to know what happened here, and whether government deserves any of the responsibility.gloria-lopez-order