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Cambria judge weighs open juvenile court hearings

Wednesday, November 14, 2001

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Cambria County Common Pleas Judge Norman A. Krumenacker III gave no indication yesterday whether he would allow the public to attend future hearings regarding the custody of Darlene and Michael Ference's four children.

 
 
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The judge questioned attorneys for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which has asked the court to open hearings in the Ferences' child welfare case. But he also quizzed attorneys for Cambria County Children & Youth Services, the children and the parents, all of whom oppose permitting the press and public to attend the hearings.

The Ferences, of Johnstown, pleaded guilty two months ago to abusing their children. The case became well-known in Cambria County when police said the parents had for a decade locked the children in their rooms, starved them, denied them water and even nailed shut windows so they couldn't scoop snow from the ledges to drink.

Although juvenile court removed the children from their parents about two years ago, news media did not become aware of the situation until police filed criminal charges early this year because juvenile court hearings are conducted in secret. The Post-Gazette asked Krumenacker in October to open the next hearing in the juvenile court case regarding the Ferences.

Yesterday, Krumenacker asked Post-Gazette attorney W. Thomas McGough Jr. of Reed Smith, Downtown, why he should open the hearings when that seemed to be a job for the Legislature. He noted that lawmakers opened delinquency hearings in juvenile court in 1996, but didn't open abuse and neglect hearings also conducted there.

McGough argued that the state Constitution guarantees "all courts shall be open," so any law closing them is unconstitutional. But, he noted, the juvenile law that seems to close hearings gives judges discretion to open them to those with a legitimate interest.

The press and the public have a legitimate interest in the Ference case, he argued, because CYS had been in and out of the household for a decade but did not remove the children for years. The public has a proper interest in why that happened and whether CYS is still trying to reunite the parents with their children, McGough said.

The judge dismissed CYS attorney Gary Vitko's contention that if the public attends hearings, the parents will learn who filed allegations of abuse or neglect against them. The judge said that information is not revealed now, and any judge can control the release of information in his courtroom.

Timothy J. Sloan, who represents the four children, said the public should not be interested in the hearings occurring in this case now because the children already are in foster care.

Krumenacker agreed that it did not seem like the best timing, but he said there are future events that may be of legitimate public interest, such as whether the parents' custody rights are terminated and the children adopted. The Post-Gazette is saying, he told Sloan, that it wants to determine whether "the agency is doing its best to look out for the long-term interest of the kids."

McGough also argued that the newspaper is not scrutinizing the children but wants to examine the behavior of the adults -- the parents, CYS and the court.

Phyllis G. Forman, who represents Darlene Ference, and Thomas P. Finn, who represents Michael Ference, agreed with Vitko and Sloan that the hearings should remain closed.

Krumenacker did not say when he would issue a decision.



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