Opening Court Proceedings Involving Minors

Lexington Herald Leader, February 6, 2006: Open hearings an issue in parental rights

By Beth Musgrave And Valarie Honeycutt Spears

Same day. Same argument.

Two different judges, two different answers.

The legal argument Louisville lawyer John Helmers was pushing yesterday in Louisville Family Court was a prickly one. The courts, he argued, should open hearings concerning the termination of the parental rights of three of his clients to the public.

Those hearings and all hearings involving children in Kentucky -- from juvenile delinquency cases to abuse and neglect cases -- have always been closed.

Jefferson Family Court Judge Jerry Bowles ruled against Helmers yesterday, saying the issue on whether the courts should be open is one for the legislature to decide.

Just an hour and a half later, Family Court Judge Stephen George said he would take the issue under advisement and issue a ruling later, adding that the courts should err on the side of openness.

The difference in opinion could be a bellwether of what the legislature may face as it tackles reform of key areas of the state's adoption rules. The legislature, which begins its session today, is expected to receive a series of recommendations on changing the state's adoption laws after investigations and panels showed that in some cases biological parents' parental rights are terminated too quickly.

The Inspector General, in a stinging January report about problems with foster care adoptions and termination of parental rights, recommended that termination proceedings against parents be open. The report found that social workers in the Elizabethtown office lied in court, falsified documents, acted spitefully toward parents and focused on adoptions rather than unifying children with their parents. At a meeting of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services Blue Ribbon Panel on Adoption, tasked with investigating adoption procedures in Kentucky, some family court judges suggested opening abuse and neglect hearings.

It is too early to tell whether legislators will recommend opening the courts as part of a possible reform package.

Editor's note: Divorce proceedings involving custody of children are open to the public, even when those cases involve allegations of abuse or neglect.

In a related matter, the Courier-Journal published today a letter to the editor from DAVID W. RICHART ,Executive director, National Institute on Children, Youth & Families, Inc.

Opening juvenile court

In a Jan. 31 editorial, The C-J continued its editorial goal of opening juvenile courts in child neglect and abuse proceedings….

We [child and family advocates] agree that the road to systemic reform of child protection in Kentucky, which was the subject of 1978, 1985, 1995, 2001, 2006 and 2007 exposés, is impeded by the principle of confidentiality.

Putting it bluntly: More often than not, confidentiality protects the actions of the state agency as much as it protects the identity of children and their families….

We also agree that judges should be given the ultimate responsibility for deciding whether hearings should be open. But we would qualify that recommendation by allowing the attorney for the child, the attorney for the parent, as well as the county attorney, to request a special hearing on whether a particular court proceeding should be open to the public.

Such a special hearing might allow judges to hear all of the facts, which is especially important in child sexual abuse matters.

But we have more modifications in mind. Since no attorney is appointed to represent the parent or child at the first, 72-hour hearing on accusations of child neglect or abuse, the most wildly speculative hearsay evidence reported by the state agency could be subject to full media scrutiny….

That "evidence" – while telling only one side of the story -- could be subject of sensational reporting even though it might not be true….

The second modification is to prohibit the media from having access to court and agency records. At present, these records contain information of the most speculative kind, including the name of the person who reported the incident, an action that would have a stifling effect on the public's willingness to report real abuse and neglect. So, we think records should be out-of-bounds for reporters.

Third … the media must be held accountable as well. We have suggested that the Kentucky Press Association establish voluntary guidelines providing ethical guidance for journalists so that their peers could hold reporters accountable….

For some of us, our worst nightmare is turning on our television to watch a 23-year-old cub reporter tell his audience of a "breaking news" story full of identifying information about a family -- which later turns out to be false…. It is our contention that once the media has let the wrong cat out of the bag, reversing this incorrect stereotype of children and families may be next to impossible.

The Courier-Journal has done a commendable job of raising the consciousness of the public -- and even child advocates -- about the importance of opening child abuse and neglect proceedings.

We would suggest that all of us put a bit more effort into amending the current confidentiality statute in child abuse and neglect proceedings before we change this nearly century-old provision of juvenile law.