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Custody hearing closed for boy who was stabbed in the skull

Friday, November 01, 2002

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A second Common Pleas Court judge has ruled that a provision in the state constitution requires juvenile court hearings to be open, but decided to close such hearings anyway in a high-profile Indiana County case.

Indiana County Judge William Martin ruled this week to keep closed the hearings involving the custody of Shayne Stein, the Blairsville boy who was stabbed in the skull two years ago.

The boy, now 14, was placed in foster care after he awoke from a coma and indicated his father was the attacker. The father, however, was acquitted in June and said he would seek return of his child. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette immediately sought access to the juvenile court hearing at which that decision would be made, arguing that the hearing should be open because the state constitution guarantees "all courts shall be open."

Martin agreed that the constitutional provision covers juvenile court, a position taken earlier in the year by Westmoreland County Judge Rita Hathaway, when the Post-Gazette requested access to hearings involving the surviving children of Annette and John Bright, whose 8-year-old daughter, Annette, was shot to death in July 2001.

Yet, both Martin and Hathaway decided to refuse reporters entry to the hearings despite the constitutional protection. They noted that judges are permitted to close hearings if someone seeks a secret proceeding and can show that public access would cause that person clearly defined serious injury.

Martin argued that Shayne Stein would be injured by a public hearing. "This court finds that here the best interests of the child are not served by opening the proceedings ... it is clear that the child would be severely affected by disclosure of evidence that would be developed in these proceedings."

W. Thomas McGough Jr., of Reed Smith LLP, Downtown, said yesterday he would file an appeal for the Post-Gazette.

The Post-Gazette already has appealed Hathaway's decision, along with a similar ruling by Cambria County Judge Norman A. Krumenacker III. Krumenacker decided to keep closed hearings regarding the children of Darlene and Michael Ference of Johnstown. The Ferences pleaded guilty to abusing their four children over a decade, but the county child welfare agency did not remove them for years after receiving complaints.

McGough argued before a panel of Superior Court judges last week that juvenile court hearings should not be secret unless the party seeking closure proves that a reporter's access would cause specific and serious harm. In addition, he argued, hearings should not be closed when the information someone is trying to conceal will be released anyway.

Such a revelation is possible when the parents of children taken by child welfare agencies talk to reporters after closed hearings. It is also possible for reporters to gain access to information that is released in open criminal proceedings of parents charged with abuse.

A great deal of information about the Ference, Bright and Stein cases has already been made public in such open criminal proceedings.

"We do not think Judge Martin adequately considered the public's interest in public proceedings nor did he consider less restrictive ways of protecting the interest of the child," McGough said yesterday. In addition, he said he did not feel Martin was specific enough about what harm would be caused to the child by an open juvenile hearing. "There were already widely publicized criminal proceedings, so the bulk of information may be a matter of public record," McGough said.

Although Krumenacker, Martin and Hathaway have refused reporters access, the six Allegheny County judges who hear cases involving abuse and neglect have permitted a Post-Gazette reporter to attend hearings since Jan. 1.


Barbara White Stack can be reached at bwhitestack@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.

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