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Wisconsin Governor's Child Welfare Agency Threatens NBC Journalist

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Scott Bauer

MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers’ assault on the First Amendment and open government continues, with one of his agencies threatening an NBC journalist with criminal charges for doing his job. 

National investigative reporter Mike Hixenbaugh exposed the unchecked power of child welfare agencies — with the assistance of physicians —  to take children away from their parents. His special report was met with silence and silencing orders from the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office and the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. 

“Authorities in Wisconsin did not want you to read this story,” Hixenbaugh tweeted Monday. “First a prosecutor sought a gag order after I reached out seeking comment. Then a state agency sent me a cease and desist order warning of potential criminal charges.” 

In his story, the journalist noted Evers’ DCF cited a state law that prevents the agency from disclosing details about child welfare investigations. When NBC News followed up with “specific questions” about the case, the agency warned Hixenbaugh that he could be charged for “publishing information obtained in a child abuse investigation file,” the story states. 

Twitter followers of the story expressed their disgust with the agency — and an administration that has earned a reputation for keeping secrets. 

“This is unbelievable. This continues a disturbing trend of secrecy among some in the Evers administration,” Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) wrote. “The @WisDCF must answer to why they are utilizing intimidation tactics to cover this up and more importantly why they continue to persecute this family.” 

Steineke called for an investigation into DCF, and that the results should be made public. 

The investigative report features a couple whose adopted baby was removed from the home on allegations that her new father, a doctor, abused her, despite the fact that multiple physicians concluded the child was not intentionally injured. Child Protective Services took the girl from the home and placed her in foster care. Eight months later, she remains separated from her family and her father faces felony charges and possibly six years in prison, if convicted. 

Eric Bott, director of Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin, likened the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office gag order to its use of John Doe secrecy orders in Wisconsin’s infamous John Doe investigation. The politically-motivated probes into dozens of conservative groups silenced subjects and witnesses on penalty of jail time and costly fines. 

After the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared the investigations unconstitutional, the Republican-led Legislature reformed the state’s John Doe laws. 

“I thought WI sent a message to DAs that unconstitutional gag orders wouldn’t be tolerated when it passed John Doe reform,” Bott tweeted. “Perhaps it’s time to revisit these laws.” He then tweeted this question to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Molly Beck: “now that reporters are targeted do you understand the importance of John Doe reform?” 

A Milwaukee County judge on Tuesday issued an order prohibiting all parties involved in the case from discussing it publicly, according to NBC Milwaukee affiliate WTMJ. 

The DCF case is just the latest example of the Evers administration’s trouble with transparency. 

Last month, Fox6 News sued the governor for failing to turn over even one day of Evers’ emails sought through an open records request. He eventually told the reporter that such emails would be “pretty boring,” and that if he sent out one email a day, “that’s an extraordinary day.” 

Earlier this year, the MacIver Institute sued Evers in federal court for barring the conservative news agency from a budget briefing with fellow Capitol reporters. The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty has also sued the state Department of Public Instruction and the agency’s handpicked successor of the governor, who previously served as DPI superintendent. That lawsuit, too, involves transparency problems. Empower Wisconsin’s executive director is a plaintiff in that lawsuit. 

It’s not clear if the Evers administration will seek to enforce its cease-and-desist order against the NBC reporter. A spokeswoman for the governor did not return Empower Wisconsin’s request for comment. Hixenbaugh was still reporting on the story as of Tuesday afternoon. 

In a tweet, Hixenbaugh alluded to the challenges he faced in reporting his investigative piece.

“This was one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever worked on, and not just because it’s emotional,” the NBC reporter wrote.

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