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Judge denies access to juvenile hearing

Friday, December 28, 2001

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A Cambria County Common Pleas judge yesterday refused to permit the public to attend juvenile court hearings involving the children of Darlene and Michael Ference of Johnstown.

 
 
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In denying the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's request for public access to hearings regarding the custody of the four children that the Ferences have pleaded guilty to abusing, Judge Norman A. Krumenacker III explained, "Any positive effect [of open hearings] in the way of increased awareness in the public and the Legislature of problems facing children is outweighed by the potential for emotional harm to these children."

The Post-Gazette plans to appeal Krumenacker's decision to state Superior Court. Post-Gazette attorney W. Thomas McGough Jr. of Reed Smith, Downtown, said that while Krumenacker wrote a thoughtful opinion, "I think a court of appeals might tip the balance of the scales back the other way."

Citing the Pennsylvania constitutional guarantee that "all courts shall be open," the Post-Gazette had asked Krumenacker in October to open hearings regarding custody of the Ference children. The paper argued that the public had a legitimate interest in the case because Cambria's office of Children and Youth Services did not remove the children from their home for years after receiving the first complaints that they were being mistreated.

In his opinion denying the public access, Krumenacker says the constitutional guarantee of open courts does not apply to juvenile court.

To back up his contention, he cites a provision of the 1933 Pennsylvania Juvenile Act requiring the sealing of the juvenile docket and prohibiting "indiscriminate public inspection" of juvenile records.

Krumenacker said closed hearings are justified because abused and neglected children would be humiliated by the exposure in public hearings: "It is clear that there exists a compelling governmental interest in protecting the juveniles involved with the courts from the possible harms associated with public attention to their cases."

Krumenacker also said he felt that open hearings would discourage the reporting of abuse.

The Post-Gazette has argued in this case, and in a similar request for an open hearing in Westmoreland County, that the state constitution guarantees access, that the public has a right to attend government functions and that media access would provide an oversight to the court and child welfare system that does not currently exist.



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