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PG seeks public hearing in child abuse case

Saturday, October 27, 2001

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette yesterday asked the state Supreme Court to order a Cambria County judge to listen to the newspaper's request for a public hearing in a child abuse case before that case goes to court.

The newspaper acted after Cambria County Common Pleas Judge Norman A. Krumenacker III on Thursday reiterated his decision to conduct the juvenile proceeding before hearing the Post-Gazette's arguments that it be opened to the public.

On Oct. 12, the Post-Gazette first asked Krumenacker to consider opening to the public the next hearing concerning the four abused children of Darlene and Michael Ference of Johnstown. That hearing is scheduled for Nov. 9.

Krumenacker decided to hear the Post-Gazette's request on Nov. 13 -- four days after the Ference proceeding is scheduled. The Post-Gazette asked him to reconsider, but he refused to change either of the hearing dates, citing a busy court schedule and state law requiring review hearings in abuse cases occur every six months.

Normally, the Post-Gazette would appeal Krumenacker's decision to state Superior Court, but that process takes months, so the paper wouldn't be able to argue its case before the Ference hearing occurs anyway. So the Post-Gazette has also sought quick action from the state Supreme Court in a special procedure called King's Bench.

The Post-Gazette contends the hearing should be open because the high-profile case is a matter of public interest and the state Constitution guarantees, "All courts shall be open."

In addition, the state law calling for closed hearings in abuse and neglect cases gives judges discretion to open them.

Darlene and Michael Ference, both 36, pleaded guilty in August to abusing the children, ages 11 through 17. The case received widespread publicity in May when police said the two had starved the children, locked them in their rooms for long periods of time and nailed their windows shut when they scooped snow from ledges to drink. One child, who suffers from cerebral palsy, weighed less than 60 pounds when removed from the house at the age of 13.

Relatives and others have complained that they'd told child welfare officials in Cambria County for years that something untoward was going on in the home. Though child welfare officials went to the home numerous times throughout the 1990s to investigate complaints, charges were not filed against the parents until earlier this year.

The failure of child welfare officials to act sooner raised questions in the community and prompted an investigation by the state Department of Public Welfare.

Department spokesman Jay Pagni said earlier this week that the agency is required by state law to notify police only about sexual abuse and serious physical abuse. But, he said, investigators have counseled Cambria officials on "a more common sense approach for contacting other agencies and the authorities." He declined to disclose the full contents of the investigation report.

Child welfare officials are prohibited by state law from discussing individual cases, so Cambria officials can't justify their actions. Information explaining their behavior could, however, be disclosed at hearings, such as the one scheduled in this case for Nov. 9.

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