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First Amendment
Appeals court urged to open juvenile hearings

Thursday, October 24, 2002

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

An attorney for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette yesterday asked a panel of state Superior Court judges to allow the press into juvenile court hearings regarding abused and neglected children.

W. Thomas McGough Jr. of Reed Smith LLP, Downtown, told the judges that the hearings must be open under the Pennsylvania Constitution, which states, "All Courts shall be open."

In addition, although the state's Juvenile Act, which prescribes how the state and courts are to deal with cases of abused, neglected and delinquent children, appears to close the hearings to the public, it says judges shall admit interested parties, and reporters are among those described as interested.

Despite that, most hearings regarding abused and neglected children across the state are closed, and when the Post-Gazette sought access last fall to such hearings in Westmoreland and Cambria Counties, it was barred.

The Post-Gazette asked Westmoreland County Common Pleas Judge Rita Hathaway to permit a reporter into hearings regarding the surviving children of Annette and John Bright, whose 8-year-old daughter, Annette, was shot to death in July 2001. A friend of the family, Charles E. Koschalk, is charged with the murder.

Relatives said they complained to the Westmoreland County child welfare agency about the Brights permitting Koschalk to have access to the children despite his conviction for corrupting the morals of the Brights' other daughter.

The newspaper also asked Cambria County Judge Norman A. Krumenacker III to permit a reporter to cover 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 the youngsters until years after it first received complaints.

Both Hathaway and Krumenacker barred the newspaper. Attorneys from Westmoreland and Cambria counties yesterday urged the Superior Court panel of judges to affirm those decisions.

Timothy J. Sloan, representing the Ference children, told the judges, "When children's interests are involved, it is appropriate to err on the side of caution" and close the hearings.

Sloan said mental health issues that arise in the cases must be kept secret, but Superior Court Judge Maureen Lally-Green asked if it were appropriate to also conceal the actions or inactions of the child welfare agency.

"I am not in favor of saying you should throw the press out all of the time," Sloan said, but determining when to let them in would create chaos. Every hearing would have to be stopped while the press argued for access, he suggested, and court action would be hopelessly delayed.

Gary Vitko, representing Cambria's child welfare agency, and Mary Ann Grec, representing Westmoreland's, argued that the media need not have access to hearings to be a watchdog over the child welfare agencies because the state Department of Public Welfare does that.

"The real watchdogs are the appellate court, the trial court and DPW," Vitko said. If the newspaper wants to inform the public about how the child welfare system operates, it can ask general questions of the bureaucrats who run it, he said.

Grec agreed and said the issues are too sensitive for reporters to hear. "The reason that the Post-Gazette wants into the Bright matter is to see if Children and Youth Services acted appropriately, but for them to get answers to that question, they have to listen to intimate details of these children's lives."

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

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