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Panel to study opening hearings on abuse

Sunday, September 30, 2001

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The issue of open hearings in abuse and neglect cases in Pennsylvania juvenile courts will be researched by a state government committee assigned to recommend improvements to child welfare.

Related Coverage:

Few problems, benefits in open hearings


The chairman of that committee, Frank P. Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates in Philadelphia, said the group would look at the issue. He said his personal opinion favoring open hearings would not be a factor. "The group can decide," he said.

Other members of the group, the Joint State Government Commission Advisory Committee on Services to Children and Youth, and other child welfare experts said last week that they were interested in pursuing the open hearing issue after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a series of articles about the trend toward open hearings across the nation.

Vicki Sirockman, coordinator for an Allegheny County group called Child Watch that works to improve child welfare, said, "I am completely sold on opening those hearings." She said she would ask the organization at its next meeting whether it could as a group support efforts to open the hearings.

Referring to the old juvenile court building in Oakland, she said, "The court would never have degenerated to the pit that it was if reporters had been let in from the get-go."

Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said he, too, believed that the court should be opened. "It is an area that I think the Legislature would want to hold hearings on sooner rather than later, and the focus should be on the degree of openness rather than whether they should be open," he said.

Like many juvenile court experts, Schwartz is concerned about protecting the privacy of children. "There are certain parts of children's lives and families' lives that they should not be forced to put into play. ... The question is just where the line is drawn."

Others expressed the same concern. State Rep. Beverly Mackereth, R-York, a member of the Joint State Government Commission advisory committee, said she'd like the group to closely examine the issue.

As a former social worker and a victim advocate in a district attorney's office, she remembered feeling strongly that open hearings would persuade a doubting and disbelieving public that horrible cases of child physical and sexual abuse really did occur.

Still, she said, privacy is paramount in some cases. She recalled a 16-year-old girl who'd been sexually abused by her father for years. That girl told Mackereth that if word got out, she'd kill herself.

Another member of the advisory committee, State Sen. Timothy Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, a child psychologist who has testified in child abuse cases, said there were times when he felt media exposure would make the slow-moving system more accountable. But, he said, he also feared that if false accusations against parents were published, lives would be ruined.

Cervone's main concern was that children's names not be published, but he thought groups like his could prevail upon newspapers not to do that, in the same way papers do not publish the names of rape victims.

"I have concerns for the privacy of the kids. I certainly do," he said. "Kids certainly do not want this part of their lives known. But they do want known as much as anybody the harm done to them by the system."

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