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Panel presses for open hearings

P-G gains ally in juvenile cases

Friday, May 31, 2002

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association this week joined the Post-Gazette in its effort to open juvenile court hearings involving abused and neglected children to the press and public.

2 series from the PG

Juvenile Court Journal
Teens often left behind

Is this justice?:
The 'adult time' law for juveniles hasn't fulfilled its backers' promises

For more information on public records, visit the Post-Gazette's First Amendment Web.page.


In October, the Post-Gazette asked a Cambria County judge to permit the public to attend hearings concerning the abused children of Darlene and Michael Ference of Johnstown. The Ferences had pleaded guilty in August to abusing their four children over a decade, including withholding food and water.

The Cambria judge decided in December to deny access to the press and public. This week, both the Post-Gazette and the newspaper association, which represents 330 dailies and weeklies across the state, asked Superior Court to reverse the Cambria judge and to open the Ference hearings specifically and all juvenile court proceedings generally.

The Post-Gazette and the newspaper association argue that juvenile court hearings cannot be automatically closed to the public because the Pennsylvania State Constitution guarantees: "All courts shall be open."

All criminal and civil trials are open to the public, as were most juvenile court hearings across Pennsylvania from the time the court was created in 1903 until 1972. That year, the state Legislature changed the juvenile law, restricting access.

The newspaper association acknowledges the contention by some that the hearings should be closed to protect child victims, but, it said, "Opening these hearings to the public would provide for greater accountability of those involved in the system, expose flaws in the current system and better inform the public (and the Legislature) of the need for reform."

The association also points out that a study of open hearings in 12 Minnesota counties found no significant harm to children. After receiving those results, the Minnesota Supreme Court ordered all abuse and neglect hearings opened across the state as of July 1. The high court in New York opened all juvenile court hearings there in 1997. Twelve states now permit press or public access.

All six Allegheny County judges who hear abuse and neglect cases began permitting press access in January at the request of the Post-Gazette, and in February, the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges Commission came to a consensus that it could support the concept of opening hearings involving abuse, neglect and termination of parental rights to the press if judges retained the right to close some hearings or limit access to protect children.

Neither the Post-Gazette nor the newspaper association argues that the public has an irrefutable right to attend hearings. But both say that hearings should be presumed open until someone seeks closure based on tangible evidence that a public hearing would harm a child.

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