Mom declines to testify at censorship hearing about boy who took drugs to school
TRENTON >> The mother of a 5-year-old schoolboy who twice had drugs in his possession at the school last year has now invoked her Fifth Amendment right to not testify before a Mercer County Family Court judge.
Tashawn Ford asserted her constitutional rights Wednesday afternoon to shield herself from testifying in a court of law after the state called her to the witness stand. When a witness pleads the Fifth, the witness typically does that to avoid giving self-incriminating testimony.
The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office accuses Trentonian news reporter Isaac Avilucea of unlawfully obtaining a child custody report from Ford, but the staff writer on Wednesday testified that the boy’s mom “handed me a copy of the verified complaint and said, ‘You can have it.’”
The boy’s maternal grandmother, however, gave a different account of events when she took to the witness stand on Wednesday. The grandma, Tuesday Ford, in her sworn testimony said Avilucea “kept pressuring” Tashawn Ford for the documents in question.
Although The Trentonian has a copy of the child complaint, the newspaper has been blocked from publishing the contents of the documents due to the state serving the newspaper with a socalled “prior restraint” — the government’s way of censoring the press from publishing something significant.
The child custody documents relate to the 5-year-old boy who was found with drugs at school on two separate occasions last year. He was taken away from his family and placed into foster care by the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency after a teacher at the International
Academy of Trenton Charter School found crack cocaine in the student’s folder on Oct. 24, 2016. The prior restraint was served to
The Trentonian shortly before the newspaper published a story on the boy’s custody situation.
Legal proceedings have referred to the boy’s mother by her initials T.F., but The Trentonian has previously identified her by name. Her lawyer, Amy Vasquez, on Wednesday said the state has “improperly brought” the prior restraint case to court and said the child complaint was not a protected, confidential document. Eli Segal, an attorney for The
Trentonian, asked Judge Lawrence P. De Bello to dismiss the case, saying the state had “made no effort” to inform the mother
that the child complaint was confidential and that the state has “no basis” for going after the news reporter.
Avilucea’s attorney, Bruce Rosen, said his client was “doing his job” and that the world needs more “aggressive reporting.”
Assistant Attorney General Erin O’Leary opposed the newspaper’s motion to dismiss the case, and the judge ultimately allowed the case to proceed on the merits rather than toss it out.
De Bello on Wednesday heard witness testimony from Tuesday Ford, Isaac Avilucea, Deputy Attorney General John Tolleris and Trenton community activist Darren “Freedom” Green, who identified himself as a friend of the Ford family.
All of the witnesses testified about the series of events that occurred on Oct. 26, 2016, at the Mercer County Civil Courthouse.
Avilucea testified that the mom of the 5-year-old child came to The
Trentonian’s newsroom offices on the morning of Oct. 26 2016, and told him there was going to be a hearing at 1 p.m. that day concerning a family court matter. He said he arrived later that afternoon at the courthouse, where the mom handed him the child complaint, and that he asked her if he could make a copy of it. He said the mother had given him permission to make a copy of the document, but that she declined to accompany him on his way to make the copy.
After making a copy of the documents, Avilucea said he returned the original paperwork to the mother and was then “confronted” by someone who turned out to be Tolleris, who “demanded I give the complaint back,” Avilucea said. “I told him I lawfully obtained it.”
Refusing to hand over the documents, Avilucea kept the papers in his possession, walked away and down a flight of stairs. In the process, he used his mobile phone to call his boss as he was being followed by a Mercer County sheriff’s officer. “I did not stop; I kept walking,” he testified. “It is very easy to make a phone call while walking. I wanted my boss to be aware of what was going on.”
Tolleris on Wednesday testified that he was following after Avilucea at the courthouse on Oct. 26, 2016, upon learning that the news reporter had a copy of a confidential child complaint — a complaint that had no specially classified markings or confidential labels on it because it “hasn’t been the practice” of the Division of Child Protection and Permanency to place confidential labels on child complaints, he said.
The deputy attorney general also said the boy’s mom was following him as he was walking at a quick pace to keep up with Avilucea, and said the mother had alleged Avilucea “took” and “grabbed” the documents from her.
After listening to about two hours of oral testimony, Judge De Bello on Wednesday said the parties have until March 24 to give him any additional written briefs. He will presumably make a decision sometime after that on whether he will uphold or deny the state’s censorship tactics that have blocked The Trentonian from publishing the contents of the child complaint.
Avilucea, who is undergoing chemotherapy in his second battle against testicular cancer, appeared upbeat following Wednesday’s prior restraint hearing. “I’m not cocky; I’m confident,” he said, “and just hoping it goes our way.”
The New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has awarded Avilucea with the Courage Under Fire Award for his aggressive reporting on the boy who brought drugs to school.
The International Academy of Trenton Charter School at 31Chancery Lane is seen on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016.