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Making Juvenile Court Public
Some Want Abuse Hearings Opened; Others Fear Effect On Children
by: Lynne Tuohy and Colin Poitras
Kathleen A. Blatz in 1998 was just weeks away from being sworn in as Minnesota's chief justice when her predecessor graciously gave her the opportunity to make history: Did she want to sign the order that would open juvenile neglect and abuse proceedings to the public in 12 of the state's 87 counties for a three-year pilot program?
There was widespread opposition throughout the juvenile system, and a close colleague urged Blatz not to be the one to set the experiment in motion.
"He said my position on this issue would be a blight on my entire tenure as chief justice," Blatz told well over 100 lawyers, judges and child advocates gathered in a conference room at the University of Connecticut School of Law Wednesday. "But this is an issue I care passionately about."
She cares so much that she threw down a proverbial gauntlet Wednesday: "The choice before Connecticut is whether you will be among the last states to open [the juvenile courts] or embrace it now?"
The Hartford-based Center for Children's Advocacy last year proposed a bill to open abuse and neglect proceedings to the public; the bill never made it out of the legislature's Judiciary Committee. Judicial officials opposed the bill, saying disclosing personal information would be harmful to children already traumatized by abuse or neglect.
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The center's executive director, Martha Stone, said her office intends to renew its drive for legislation in the coming session. The legislation would open abuse, neglect and termination of parental rights hearings to the press and public. The bill would allow judges the discretion to restrict attendance if there were a compelling reason, but there would be a presumption of openness. Delinquency hearings would not be included.
The Center for Children's Advocacy co-sponsored Wednesday's conference with the Connecticut Public Interest Law Journal.
Blatz said that since 1997, juvenile courts in 17 states have been opened to the public. Doomsayers in Minnesota predicted everything from a circus-like atmosphere to exorbitant costs and harm to children if juvenile proceedings were opened. None of their fears materialized, she said.
"Arguments to keep the system closed fail miserably when contrasted with what is really going on," Blatz said. Coupled with judicial reform stemming from greater scrutiny, Blatz said, the public sessions spawned greater confidence and a "culture change" in the system, and won over the most ardent critics.
Juvenile courts in the 75 Minnesota counties not included in the pilot program followed suit and opened their proceedings. "It was the biggest nonevent since I've been chief justice," Blatz said.
William Wesley Patton, a professor at the Whittier Law School in California and one of the nation's foremost opponents of opening juvenile courts, challenged Blatz's assertions and said public sessions would only further harm the children at the center of them.
"I have yet to find a pediatric psychiatrist who thinks opening the courts is a good thing," said Patton, noting that a bill to open California's juvenile courts failed after child psychiatrists testified against it.
Patton said he advocates presuming the courts should be closed, with restricted access to the press and public. He suggested a system wherein citizens and reporters could apply for permission to attend hearings. Those selected would have to attend 10 hours of sensitivity training and sign agreements not to disclose privileged information. Also, at least once a year, these court observers would have to write a white paper on one issue within the system.
After all that, Patton said, reporters and members of the public could have all the access they wanted.
Connecticut Supreme Court Chief Justice William J. Sullivan - the top authority for the state Judicial Branch - did not rule out the possibility of opening the 13 juvenile courts across the state to the public, but hastened to add he has not researched the topic.
"This is the first exposure I've had to the issue," Sullivan said of Blatz's presentation. "I have a lot of respect for her. She's a great advocate of this."
D. Ray Sirry, a seasoned social worker and the federal court monitor currently helping to manage the state Department of Children and Families, said he favors opening the juvenile courts.
"Closed courts and confidentiality laws were designed to protect children, but rather than doing that, they have become the modern tool to obscure the plight of children," Sirry said in a strongly worded speech that surprised many in attendance Wednesday.
The head of the state's juvenile court system, Judge Michael A. Mack, said any decision to open the courts would require more than just action from the Judicial Branch.
"This is a huge decision and one that is not going to be made by the courts alone," Mack said. "This decision is going to be made by the legislature and public sentiment."
The bill does not call for opening all juvenile court records, and reporters and citizens who attend the hearings would be barred from using any names, addresses, photographs or other identifying information of any child, parent or guardian involved in a hearing.
Stone and her colleagues said opening the courts would increase accountability and make sure some of the state's neediest children are properly served.
"We believe that public scrutiny is what will make our courts in Connecticut better, and we think it is the best way to protect children," said Christina Ghio, a staff attorney at the Center for Children's Advocacy. Ghio said she believes the bill, as written, strikes a balance between protecting children from further harm and raising awareness about important issues in the state's child welfare system.
State Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, one of three state legislators attending Wednesday, said she agreed with Blatz that child welfare reforms must go beyond merely opening the courts to the public.
But she said she could see how opening the courts could raise awareness about weaknesses in the current system, such as the fact that state-appointed attorneys in juvenile court proceedings get paid hourly rates substantially lower than many of their peers.
Harp said the more cases that see the light of day, the better the chances for the legislature to improve the child welfare system as a whole. Surmounting judicial opposition is key. She said the most strategic approach might be to open courts in several regions of the state on a trial basis first before enacting any changes statewide.
"If we do that, then we'll have the answers we need," Harp said.
This article originally ran on November 18 2004, in the Hartford Courant and is posted here for educational purposes because it is no longer available online.
Copyright 2004, Hartford Courant
Posted December 6, 2004