Thursday, February 01, 2007

In light of abuse, juvenile courts should be open to public scrutiny

Editorial: Open juvenile courts
Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 31, 2007, pg. A10.

The wisdom of letting the sun shine on Kentucky's closed juvenile court proceedings has been underscored by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services investigation of abuses by social workers in splitting up families.

Certain state employees' behavior was so out of line that they face possible criminal prosecution, and the cabinet's inspector general himself recommended that the cloak of secrecy under which they operated be lifted.

Government operates best when it's subject to public scrutiny, and the higher the stakes, the greater the scrutiny should be.

It's simply unconscionable that policies designed to protect children were regularly being violated by those charged with carrying them out. It's unconscionable that, largely hidden from public view, social workers must juggle so many cases that required home visits are missed or that they are too quick in some cases, too slow in others and too uninformed generally in deciding whether to remove children from their parents.

Kentucky's General Assembly can and should change the juvenile secrecy laws that allow such problems to breed.

The cabinet's inspector general concluded that some state workers "displayed a prevalent attitude of omnipotence in interactions with clients and community partners" and responded "aggressively to any perceived challenge to their actions" by biological parents, foster parents and staffers.

As Louisville attorney Jon Fleischaker, a First Amendment expert who has represented The Courier-Journal and the Kentucky Press Association, points out, it would be a mistake to believe that such behavior occurs only in the single office and during the single time period the investigation targeted

Rather, the inspector general's recommendations recognize the probability of systemic problems. They may be manifested in different ways, but underlying them all is the lack of public oversight.

Child welfare advocates who remain queasy about public scrutiny must recognize that the systemic changes they seek depend on public support, and public support depends on public knowledge.

It's past time for this state to join the more than 20 others that now allow full or partial access to juvenile proceedings. The sky hasn't fallen in any of them.

There are certain circumstances in which closed proceedings may be warranted, and judges could retain the ability to shield them if they find compelling reasons to do so.

But the presumption should be that they will be open, so that Kentuckians will know how their government is treating Kentucky children and families in their name.

Kentucky should "join the more than 20 others that now allow full or partial access to juvenile proceedings."


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