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PG loses plea to open child abuse hearing

Tuesday, November 06, 2001

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The state Supreme Court yesterday denied the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's plea for emergency action in a child abuse case being heard in Cambria County juvenile court.

The court gave no reason for refusing the newspaper's request for the special relief called King's Bench. The paper filed the request after Cambria County Common Pleas Judge Norman A. Krumenacker III reiterated his decision to conduct a juvenile court proceeding before hearing the Post-Gazette's arguments that it should be opened to the press and public.

The Post-Gazette had asked Krumenacker early in October to consider opening the next hearing concerning the four abused children of Darlene and Michael Ference of Johnstown. That hearing is scheduled for Friday. Krumenacker agreed to listen to the Post-Gazette's request to open that hearing on Nov. 13 -- four days after the proceeding is to occur.

The Post-Gazette asked him to reconsider, but he refused to change the dates. So the paper appealed for special action from the state Supreme Court.

The Post-Gazette contends that although a state law closes juvenile court cases, such as the Ference case, the state constitution guarantees, "All courts shall be open." The law closing court, the Post-Gazette argues, is unconstitutional.

Also, the Post-Gazette has argued that the Ference hearing, in particular, should be opened because it is a high-profile child abuse case that is a matter of public interest.

The case has received widespread publicity since May when police said Darlene and Michael Ference had starved their four children, denied them water, locked them in rooms for long periods of time and nailed windows shut to prevent them from scooping snow from ledges to drink. The Ferences, both 36, pleaded guilty in August to abusing the children, ages 11 through 17.

Relatives, teachers and medical officials have complained to Cambria County child welfare officials for years about conditions in the Ference household. Child welfare officials went to the Ference house numerous times throughout the 1990s, but charges were not filed against the parents until earlier this year. The failure of child welfare officials to act sooner has raised questions in the community, some of which could be answered at the juvenile court hearings on this case.

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