Advocates: Public Needs To Hear The Painful Stories
January 18, 2007
By COLIN POITRAS, Courant Staff Writer
Lawyers who work in the state's closed juvenile courts have no shortage of horror stories about abused and neglected children suffering in unsuitable care because the state bureaucracy has failed to move quickly enough to help them.
If lawmakers are serious about helping abused and neglected children and holding state agencies accountable, child advocates said Wednesday, they need to hear the heartbreaking stories that currently remain behind closed doors.
Such as the 4-year-old boy, unable to speak English, who was stuck in a shelter for 180 days with staff who did not speak his language. He communicated with hand signals, pictures and a few words of broken English, often inquiring about his 1-year-old brother, who was living in a separate foster home.
Or the 11-year-old girl in foster care who for three years was bounced around 13 different placements - a youth shelter, foster homes, a psychiatric hospital and finally a large institution for troubled kids. When she finally was cleared to return to a specialized foster home, the Department of Children and Families took 10 months to find her a placement, only moving her from the institution two days before a judge was to consider holding the agency in contempt.
For years, the conventional wisdom has been to bar the public from child dependency proceedings in order to protect children from further trauma. But a new generation of child advocates says the courts should be opened, arguing that privacy hurts some children by allowing serious flaws in the state's child-welfare system to go unnoticed and unchecked.
"The severance of children from their families is one of the gravest actions the state can take, and today children's voices are silenced behind the closed doors of the juvenile court," said Sarah Healy Eagan, a lawyer for the Center for Children's Advocacy in Hartford, which is preparing legislation this year to improve public access in juvenile courts.
"The public does not see the depth of their need, their heartache as they move from one foster home to another, or their anguish in not being able to live with their parents or siblings," Eagan said. "The public does not witness the frustration of families, lawyers and social workers as parents and children wait for programs or services that take months to materialize - if ever."
Nineteen states, including New York, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, have opened their child protection proceedings, and others are considering it.
Proponents of the legislation raised the issue Wednesday as the legislature's judiciary committee considered several bills to increase public access in state courts.
Similar legislation that proposes an open-court pilot program in juvenile court won judiciary committee support last year but failed in the General Assembly.
Judiciary committee co-Chairman Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, said the matter is getting a lot of attention. Whether the General Assembly favors it this year remains to be seen, he said.
"I think it's moving in that direction, but whether it happens this year or not I don't know," McDonald said. "It's definitely got more legs this year than last."
On Wednesday, the judiciary committee held a public hearing on two proposed bills that incorporate many of the recommendations to improve public access to state court information that were laid forth by the Governor's Commission on Judicial Reform and the Judicial Branch Public Access Task Force.
Those recommendations included such things as allowing television cameras into criminal proceedings as part of a two-year pilot program in one judicial district, and making complaints about judges public.
Much of the nearly five-hour hearing centered around the ongoing debate over privacy and the public's right to know. Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane was among those who argued against allowing cameras in courtrooms. He said it might intimidate witnesses from cooperating and hinder the prosecution's efforts at getting at the truth in criminal matters.
But when it came to opening up child protection courts, Judge William J. Lavery, Connecticut's chief court administrator, was very clear. He didn't like it.
"The tsunami of change shouldn't carry children who can't defend themselves along with it," Lavery said.
Lavery said he was not representing the judicial branch as a whole. He was only speaking for himself as a judge with 26 years on the bench and 40 years in public service. Lavery said he was worried about the children.
"Some of the most disturbing testimony I heard as a trial judge involved sickening examples of child abuse and neglect," Lavery said. "Opening a child-protection proceeding will allow the public to learn intimate allegations of abuse and neglect perpetrated on children, not in the abstract, but with a name and a face attached."
Lavery said he favored creating a bipartisan committee or task force to study the matter further, something he believes the judicial branch, as a whole, also favors.
Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield and a committee member, also urged caution.
"If we are going to go down this road, there are a lot of other things we need to do before we open up these proceedings," Kissel said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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