Thursday, February 08, 2007

Should courts err on the side of openness when it comes to juvenile cases?

Open hearings an issue in parental rights
Legislature to consider adoption changes
Honeycutt-Spears, Valarie and Beth Musgrave. Lexington Herald-Leader, Feb. 6, 2007, pg. B1.

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.

State Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, chairman of the House health and welfare committee, said yesterday he didn't know if the proposal would be included in legislation. The bill, which could include a host of changes to adoption laws, has not yet been filed.

Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, who is expected to sponsor the legislation, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Helmers, who is appointed by the state to represent parents in termination proceedings, said he decided to challenge the closing of termination proceedings because he thinks the statute allows for it. To make sure that the state is doing its job and not moving too quickly to terminate parental rights, the public should know what goes on in juvenile courts, Helmers said. "There are some great social workers out there," Helmers said. But there are some really, really bad ones, he added.

Thomas Mercer, a lawyer for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, urged George to rule against Helmers, arguing that the Unified Juvenile Code, which governs judicial proceedings, clearly states that all proceedings regarding juveniles should be closed to the public.

The cabinet, in blue ribbon panel hearings, has not taken an official stance on whether court cases involving minors should be public.

Helmers is proposing that parties who wish to attend a termination of parental rights hearing write the judge two days before the hearing. A judge can decide before the hearing how to deal with the rights of the children involved, Helmers said.

But Louise Welch, a lawyer appointed to represent the children of one of Helmers' clients, argued in court yesterday that opening the courts could damage the children, who are the victims in termination proceedings. Helmers said yesterday he's not sure if he will take the issue to the state Supreme Court. It will depend on George's ruling and what his clients want him to do.


Post a Comment

<< Home