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Few problems, benefits in open hearings

Sunday, September 30, 2001

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the first independent analysis of the effects of opening abuse and neglect hearings in juvenile court, the National Center for State Courts found no devastating downsides and no remarkable benefits.

The evaluation released last week of the three-year open court experiment in 12 Minnesota counties doesn't endorse or condemn the practice of allowing the public into what were once secret hearings.

It says, however, the worst fears of opponents -- that children would be injured -- and the best hopes of supporters -- that the public would become more aware of child welfare issues -- were not realized.

The Minnesota Supreme Court, which created the pilot project, will conduct a public hearing Nov. 13, then decide whether to continue the program, expand it or close it down.

The report comes in the midst of a trend toward opening the juvenile court hearings at which children are removed from parents accused of abuse or neglect.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a three-part series on the trend last week. Twelve states now allow either the press or public to attend these sessions, and within the past year, three more began researching the possibility. A bill that would open some hearings is before the Washington state Legislature. And Congress is expected to pass an amendment to legislation before year's end that would specifically permit states to experiment with open hearings.

In Minnesota, the chief justice of its Supreme Court, Kathleen Blatz, opened hearings as her first act after taking the office in 1998. She asked counties to volunteer to participate.

Blatz, like many supporters of open hearings, believes they'll provide positive dividends. She says the public needs to hear the stories of individual children so that citizens are motivated to improve the child welfare system.

At the same time, she said in an interview in June, she did not believe children would suffer from open proceedings.

"I said, 'Prove me wrong. If horrors happen, then we will stop it.' I had confidence it would not happen." She has declined to comment on the evaluation because she must decide now, with the rest of the court, whether to continue the project.

Esther Wattenberg, a social work professor and director of the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare at the University of Minnesota, strongly opposed opening the hearings, contending the exposure would harm vulnerable children who have a right to confidentiality.

That is the greatest fear expressed by opponents -- that abused and neglected children would suffer further harm when their names were published or pictures broadcast as a result of open hearings.

The evaluation of the Minnesota experiment by the National Center for State Courts found, however, that children were not harmed.

Except for one case, the report says, "Open hearings [and] records have not resulted in documented direct or indirect harm to any parties involved in child protection proceedings."

The one case in which the report suggests harm was done had been covered before the open hearings experiment began and involved a woman trying to get custody of one child after three had died.

The report also says the media did not attempt to sell newspapers or increase ratings by sensationalizing child welfare cases. On the other hand, the media interest in covering the hearings waned over the three years, and few articles were done about child welfare issues. Most coverage involved egregious cases of abuse that would have been covered anyway, the report says.

While the media did not provide the oversight that open hearing supporters anticipated, others did, the report says. A group called Watch sent 20 volunteers to 600 court appearances before 10 judges. In a 100-page report it analyzed the court's handling of those cases and recommended improvements.

Also, the evaluation says, court hearings were attended by more family members, foster parents and neighbors whose presence provides some monitoring of court behavior.

The report says there continues to be potential costs to families who could lose privacy, but that "Real and potential benefits result from open hearings [and] records including enhanced professional accountability, increased public and media attention to child protection issues ... and openness of judicial proceedings in a free society."

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