Sunday, January 21, 2007

Secrecy creates constant threat of abuse of process

Open child-removal court hearings urged
Those involved predict tough fight over issue
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie. Lexington Herald-Leader, Jan. 13, 2007, pg. A1.

Secrecy has long shrouded court proceedings in Kentucky involving the removal of children from their biological families and the termination of parental rights.

This week, in a report critical of the way some state social workers took children from their parents, state Inspector General Robert J. Benvenuti called for the General Assembly to change laws so that those particular court proceedings are open.

Though at least 20 states across the country allow some level of transparency in child removal cases, several people involved in Kentucky's child protective and court systems said yesterday that the issue is likely to bring on a tough fight in Kentucky.

"I think it's something we need to look at, but I don't think it's something we should rush into," said State Rep. Susan Westrom, a Lexington Democrat who has been involved in adoption and foster care issues. "We need to work with the experts to see what the pros and cons are."

David Richart, the executive director of the Louisville-based National Institute for Children Youth and Families, said that opponents to the open-court hearings fear that children will be unfairly stigmatized if the media publishes details about alleged abuse or neglect.

Richart said he would favor a change in the law that would allow more transparency in such cases. But along with that, he would also recommend that the media follow voluntary guidelines that would afford protections to the vulnerable -- children and people terrified of coming forward with complaints. - I AGREE

Jon Fleischaker, general counsel for the Kentucky Press Association, recalled the "strong institutional resistance" that his group has faced in the General Assembly and in court challenges. The KPA has unsuccessfully fought to open court cases involving juveniles, including those involving abuse, neglect and termination of parental rights. Fleischaker said opening the child removal court cases "is long overdue."

"When you have secrecy, you have a real and constant threat of abuse of process," he said.

In 2000, the National Center for State Courts in Virginia published findings from a federal Children's Bureau conference with state officials about public access to child abuse and neglect proceedings. The consensus reached by the Children's Bureau was that the open courts held child welfare systems accountable and did not have negative consequences on children's rights, as long as judges had some discretion to close individual cases.

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges supports the idea of opening such cases as long as judges are given the option of closing proceedings on a case by case basis, said David Gamble, a senior information specialist.

In Kentucky, the Inspector General's recommendation followed a yearlong investigation of a state social worker office in Elizabethtown. Said Benvenuti's report: "Allowing the proceedings to be open, with exception only by court order, will provide the most fail-proof form of oversight."

The investigation uncovered inappropriate and possibly criminal behavior against biological families.

Benvenuti's office and a Cabinet for Health and Family Services task force are both reviewing complaints that some state social workers improperly took children from their families and put them into foster care to increase the number of state adoptions. New state laws designed to fix the problems are in the works, but the legislation hasn't been unveiled yet.

Westrom said she has called a meeting for late February so family court lawyers and child advocates can scrutinize proposed bills.

Westrom expects that the proposal to open the child removal cases will be high on the meeting agenda because it has the potential to increase oversight, but she doesn't anticipate that the change will become law without an extended debate.

Fleischaker said people need only look at the Inspector General's report to understand how much the open court proceedings would protect children.

"If it could happen in Elizabethtown," said Fleischaker, "it could be happening in other places."


Post a Comment

<< Home