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Visibility boosts credibility

Monday, September 24, 2001

In Indiana, as in Pennsylvania, the public is routinely excluded from all juvenile court hearings involving abuse and neglect.

But three Indiana judges permitted reporters and camera crews from a national television news show into their hearings.

Among them is Indianapolis Judge James Payne. He believes secret hearings are destructive: "I think we do a lot of good work in our system, and people don't know about it, and they don't know about it because we keep the hearings closed.

"When I came to juvenile court, it was really in disrepute and disarray. I had these goals: to increase credibility and visibility to the point that when I left, others in the judiciary and legal practice would want to come to juvenile court because they felt good things would be done.

"I do not think you can increase credibility unless you increase visibility."

So, he opened the hearings to people interested in the issues -- teachers, police officers, principals and community leaders.

They watch and make up their own minds about whether the process is right or wrong, he says. "If we are doing well, we need to be congratulated. If we are doing some things wrong, we need to find out. We need to learn, and that means from others too."

In addition, he notes, those who oppose openness because they say it will hurt the children are somewhat disingenuous, because court, child welfare agencies and nonprofit groups use the names and pictures of abused and neglected children when it serves their purposes.

For example, when agencies want to get children adopted, they post their pictures, and intimate details of their problems, on the Internet. When a nonprofit organization wants to raise money for repairs at its group home, it will run a picture of one of its cute clients in a newsletter saying how well she is doing. Right next to her darling face will be a plea for a donation of $2,500 for new steps.

When Allegheny County foundations wanted to evaluate the juvenile court hearing officer program they helped fund, they got permission from the court for a freelance writer to attend hearings and published the picture of a child on the cover of the report.

But when a friend of parents accused of abuse, an interested neighbor or a newspaper reporter want to attend a juvenile hearing, they're told to get out. That, says Judge Payne, just isn't right.

-- Barbara White Stack

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