Friday, December 22, 2006

'When kids are involved, courts prefer to operate in the dark'

OPINION: Juvenile courtrooms remain closed, because lawmakers' minds also were
Hawpe, David. Louisville Courier-Journal, April 30, 2006, pg. H2.

The legislature left Frankfort having cracked open the door to juvenile court, but just barely and apparently only for the purpose of letting prosecutors and judges show how tough they are on young hoodlums.

But there is so much more the public needs to know about the way courts deal with youngsters, with their families and with the agencies and officials who are supposed to protect them and help them.

Imagine a situation in which:
--The federal government puts heat on states to jack up the number of foster children who are adopted, and state officials protect their access to federal funds by pushing "quick trigger" adoptions, in which judges cavalierly take away the rights of biological parents.

--State agencies and court decisions send mixed messages: Leave an abuser or lose custody of your children, but if you take refuge in a shelter we'll consider you unstable.

--Social workers choose adoptive families for their potential to benefit the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, or to return a favor some official thinks is owed.

--Poor families confront this kind of discrimination without the help of lawyers or expert witnesses, because they can't afford either.

Well, none of this is fantasy.

These are the kinds of things critics of the system described in a startling report by Valarie Honeycutt Spears in the Lexington Herald-Leader. It may be evidence of a national problem, surfacing early in Kentucky.

What's at issue is the potential use of foster children as "bartering items" in a system that looks a lot like the black-market distribution of kids.

The Louisville-based National Institute on Children, Youth and Families, along with Kentucky Youth Advocates, raised concerns in a report earlier this year.

There have been lots of denials, but the state Health and Family Services inspector general is on the case, and both administrative actions and criminal prosecutions are possible.

The broader question is why it has taken so long for this potential scandal to emerge publicly.

It's also an easy question. When kids are involved, courts prefer to operate in the dark.

As Honeycutt reported, judges, social workers, biological parents and advocates are "typically intimidated by confidentiality laws." The state investigation was prompted by 225 hot-line complaints, in which callers couldn't be entirely candid. They were scared to break secrecy rules.

Fayette Family Court Judge Tim Philpot said, "The key to all of these cases is whether you have a judge paying attention."

But how would the voting public know, since it is shut out?

Prior to this year's legislative session, The Courier-Journal's Andrew Wolfson described the consequences of a system in which Kentucky still prosecutes juveniles behind closed doors, then locks away their records.

The result: "Nobody knows whether a dangerous juvenile is in their midst, or whether Kentucky is getting its money's worth for the tens of millions of dollars it spends on prosecution, treatment and rehabilitation of young offenders." This state invokes some of the strictest secrecy in the nation, "requiring the public to accept on faith that it is being protected from dangerous children and that innocent children are being protected from dangerous adults."

Lawmakers apparently didn't believe what they read.

During the session, the Kentucky Press Association and a group of county attorneys led by Jefferson's Irv Maze tried to argue that the juvenile justice system should be open, with judges allowed to impose secrecy only in special circumstances.

Lawmakers wouldn't listen. They either don't understand the value of openness or don't care enough about kids and their families to mandate it.


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