June 17, 2005

Bills seek to reduce child abuse

June 17, 2005 [Associated Press]

SALEM — A bill requiring school workers to warn law enforcement or the Department of Human Services about suspected child abuse by an employee cleared the Senate on 28-0 vote.

The legislation also would force schools to disclose the disciplinary records of employees convicted of drug and sex crimes.

The House, meanwhile, passed a bill that would require the human services department to release child-abuse records to the public if a child suffers a serious injury or dies from abuse.

Opening the records would help the public decide whether the department took appropriate action to protect a child, said Rep. Gordon Anderson, R-Grants Pass.

The twin pieces of legislation follow several high-profile child abuse cases.

The Department of Human Services faced criticism following the 2002 deaths of two Oregon City girls — Ashley Pond, 12, and Miranda Gaddis, 13.

An investigation revealed the agency had lost reports from Pond that she had been sexually abused by her Oregon City neighbor, Ward Weaver.

Weaver was convicted of the killings in 2004.

In southern Oregon, a former assistant coach at Gold Beach High School was arrested in April on charges that he had sexually abused several female students over a three-year period. In May, an assistant coach at South Medford High School was charged with sexually abusing a 15-year-old female student.

"It's important for you, as a community member or Oregonian, to know what's happening in our schools,'' said Sen. Vicki Walker, D-Eugene, who sponsored the bill passed by the Senate Wednesday. "This helps protect our children."

Posted by Nancy at 10:08 PM | Comments (0)

April 15, 2005

Bills seek to repeal limitations on child sex abuse cases

April 15, 2005 [Associated Press]

Austin, TX — One of two bills proposing to eliminate the statute of limitations in child sex crimes cases was scheduled to be heard by a House subcommittee next week.

The bill would repeal the current Texas law, which requires that such criminal cases against a defendant must begin before the victim turns 28

We cannot allow a statute of limitations to be a passcard for someone who is willing to do this kind of damage and harm and hurt to the children of this state," said Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Houston, who filed the bill.

But some prosecutors don't think doing away with the statute of limitations will help victims, said Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairman Terry Keel, R-Austin.

"The statute of limitations are there for the benefit of victims," said Keel, a former prosecutor. "By eliminating the statute, prosecutors could refuse to go forward simply by telling victims on a righteous case that there is no statute of limitations. So there are consequences that have not been thought of that are anti-victim."

A similar bill filed by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, hasn't been scheduled for debate.

Currently, 17 states don't have statutes of limitations for these cases, and Texas should join that list, Ellis said.

"This legislation puts the prosecution of sexual crimes against children on par with murder and manslaughter," said Nathan Coburn, of Mothers Against Sexual Abuse, referring to two crimes that aren't subject to a statute of limitations.

Posted by Nancy at 12:38 AM | Comments (0)

April 08, 2005

Judge grants new trial to ex-priest on sex abuse charges

April 8, 2005 [Associated Press]

BALTIMORE - A defrocked Baltimore priest will get a new trial on child sexual abuse charges.

Maurice Blackwell was convicted less than two months ago of molesting a former parishioner who later shot the clergyman.

A judge has granted a new trial, agreeing with defense arguments that jurors should not have heard prosecution witnesses testify about other alleged victims of Blackwell.

Judge Stuart Berger said in his order that "the bell has been rung" by the references to other victims, and that it's difficult" to un-ring that bell.

Posted by Nancy at 11:16 PM | Comments (0)

Tougher sex offender penalties pass committee

April 8, 2005 [Associated Press]

DES MOINES, Iowa The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a bill calling for tougher penalties for sex offenders.

The bill requires D-N-A samples from all convicted sex offenders and eliminates shorter sentences for inmates who refuse treatment for sex abuse. It also requires two years of supervision of sex offenders after their release.

Supporters say they'll go even further next week. They're working on a revision that would double the penalty for committing lascivious acts with a child to ten years in prison. Also, sex abusers would be supervised for life and a second offense would bring a life prison sentence.

Senator Wally Horn, a Cedar Rapids Democrat, says it's a good start.

The call for tougher penalties comes in the wake of the slaying of ten-year-old Jetseta Gage. She was kidnapped from her Cedar Rapids home and killed last month. Roger Bentley of Brandon, a convicted sex offender, is charged in her death.

Posted by Nancy at 12:24 AM | Comments (0)

April 07, 2005

Move to force Church to report abuse

April 7, 2005 [AAP}

South Australia - LEGISLATION requiring priests, church workers and volunteers to report knowledge of child abuse has passed the Upper House of the South Australian Parliament.

However, the bill introduced by independent MP Nick Xenophon, will not force priests to breach the confidentiality of the confessional after an amendment from the Liberal Opposition.

The bill will now go before the Lower House for debate. Mr Xenophon said today he was disappointed with the exemption for the confessional.

"But the alternative was for the bill to fail in the Upper House and the measure is still a dramatic improvement to require notification of child abuse," he said.

Posted by Nancy at 07:44 PM | Comments (0)

March 30, 2005

Governor signs measure for life sentence for child abuse deaths

March 30, 2005 [Associated Press]

LAS CRUCES, N.M. Governor Richardson has signed into law a measure that requires a life sentence for child abuse resulting in death.

The governor signed the measure in Las Cruces.

It was sponsored by Dona Ana County Democratic Senator Mary Jane Garcia.

Richardson says the new law sends the message that it's unacceptable to harm a child. And he says those who kill a child in New Mexico will go to prison for life.

Posted by Nancy at 08:20 PM | Comments (0)

March 29, 2005

Jacko 'abuse' airing

March 29, 2005 [AFP]
From correspondents in Santa Maria, California

THE judge in Michael Jackson's child sex trial today dealt a major blow to the defence by allowing prosecutors to tell jurors of previous cases of alleged abuse by the star.

Judge Rodney Melville granted a hotly fought prosecution motion to tell jurors of prior accusations against Jackson that never made it to court.
"The decision I have reached is: I will now admit the testimony with regard to the sexual offences and the alleged pattern of grooming," he said.

Prosecutors had asked to be allowed to tell of seven prior allegations of child sex abuse against Jackson in order to show jurors an alleged pattern of child molestation.

But only one of the five alleged victims of prior abuse by the 46-year-old superstar will testify at the trial, with the other allegations to be recounted by other witnesses, the court in California was told.

Two of the five cases that jurors will be told about were resolved in out-of-court settlements, but the judge barred prosecutors from telling jurors the amounts of the payments.

Jackson's camp had bitterly fought the effort to present potentially damaging testimony, saying such unproved allegations could poison jurors against the embattled superstar.

Legal analysts say the admission of such explosive testimony could deal a serious blow to the defence by lending credence to the accusations in the present case.

Posted by Nancy at 10:29 AM | Comments (0)

March 28, 2005

Jackson Judge Allows Prior-Abuse Claims in Trial

March 28, 2005 [Reuters]
By Dan Whitcomb and Alexandria Sage

SANTA MARIA, Calif. (Reuters) - The judge in Michael Jackson's child-molestation trial said on Monday he would allow prosecutors to introduce evidence relating to five previous incidents of alleged abuse by the pop star, in a major defeat for his defense.

Under the ruling, jurors will be allowed to hear testimony about a 1993 case in which the singer paid some $23 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the family of a boy who accused him of sexual abuse.

Defense lawyers had strenuously objected to that testimony, arguing that prosecutors were "desperate" and that their case against Jackson had already fallen apart in court.

Jackson, 46, is accused in a 10-count indictment of plying a then-13-year-old boy with alcohol and molesting him while the youngster and his family were staying at the entertainer's Neverland Valley Ranch in early 2003.

Jackson was never charged in connection with the past accusations. However, prosecutors want to convince jurors that the self-proclaimed "King of Pop" has a pattern of behavior toward young boys -- evidence legal experts say could be devastating to his defense.

After about 90 minutes of sometimes-impassioned arguments on both sides, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney Melville sided with prosecutors. The issue was "of great importance in this case to both sides," he said.

"I'm going to permit testimony with regard to sexual offenses," Melville said.

The judge said he also would permit prosecutors to try to show that the 46-year-old entertainer had a history of "grooming" his alleged victims for abuse by lavishing time and attention on them in order to win their trust.

With jurors out of the courtroom, defense lawyers sought to block such testimony, arguing that prosecutors were trying to bring in a parade of witnesses with grudges against Jackson.

Attorney Tom Mesereau said that a grand jury never returned an indictment against Jackson in the 1993 case and that only one of the alleged prior victims has agreed to take the witness stand.

"You have what is in effect a very problematic case, and I submit the prosecution knows that," Mesereau said.

Jackson's accuser in the current case, along with the boy's brother and sister, had all "lied repeatedly," Mesereau said, adding that the inconsistencies in their testimony would worsen once the accuser's mother took the stand.
District Attorney Tom Sneddon shot back that Jackson's accuser had never wavered under cross-examination.

Mesereau, he said, had been "as abusive, as mean-spirited and obnoxious as you can be to a child witness, and I think it was a remarkable job this kid did. He was never once tripped up about the central fact of the case -- that he was molested."

Jackson, who faces more than 20 years in prison if convicted on all of the counts against him, has pleaded innocent and repeated in a radio interview on Sunday that the charges against him were "totally fabricated."

His lawyers have argued that the mother of Jackson's now 15-year-old accuser invented the abuse claims after latching on to the entertainer in a bid to get money from him.

They also have painted Sneddon as an overzealous prosecutor, intent on taking down Jackson at all costs, especially after his attempt to bring charges a decade earlier failed.

Posted by Nancy at 10:39 AM | Comments (0)

Past abuse claims haunt Jackson

Judge to decide whether to allow previous evidence

March 28, 2005 [Associated Press]
By Tim Malloy

SANTA MARIA - Michael Jackson tried to close the door on a 1993 claim of child molestation when he paid millions to a young accuser, but a court hearing today could resurrect those allegations.

The judge in the pop star's trial will decide whether prosecutors can introduce past claims to show jurors a pattern of abuse.

"It's like a nuclear bomb in this case," said Jim Hammer, a former San Francisco prosecutor and Fox News analyst. "(Jurors) are trying to do the right thing and if they see two or three kids say the same thing... the odds that they will convict him will go up astronomically."

The jury has been told of the 1993 allegations by a then-13-year-old boy, but the judge has discretion about what details become evidence. He could order testimony from the silenced accuser, and also let prosecutors say if there were other settlements.

NBC's "Dateline" has reported that the singer paid $2 million to the son of an employee at his Neverland Ranch in 1990.

Same attorney used

If earlier allegations are used to show a pattern of behavior, the defense is ready with a counter-argument that the current accuser's family used the 1993 case as a model for a shakedown.

Defense attorneys have already made sure jurors know that both boys had the same attorney, Larry Feldman, and were interviewed by the same psychologist, Dr. Stan J. Katz.

The 1993 accuser declined to cooperate with a criminal investigation of his claims after he received millions of dollars in a civil settlement.

"The defense is saying that was the motivation," said Dana Cole, a defense attorney following the case. "It really does provide the motivation for the family... to do what they're doing if you assume their allegations are false."

Cole, a close friend of Jackson lead attorney Thomas Mesereau who has worked with him on several other molestation cases, said the defense would prefer that the 1993 allegations not be allowed in the current case.

Evidence can be disastrous

Judge Rodney S. Melville denied a defense motion for a mistrial earlier this month filed on the grounds that Jackson's former maid, Kiki Fournier, testified about the singer's close friendships with several 10- to 14-year-old boys who stayed at his Neverland ranch. The boys she mentioned included the 1993 accuser.

Melville said he denied the motion because prosecutors elicited the testimony to establish how much contact Jackson had with the boys, not to suggest any impropriety by Jackson.

California's evidence code allows admission of evidence about past allegations as long as the investigative value outweighs the prejudicial effect it could have on jurors.

In a trial that has already included days of prosecutors showing jurors dozens of adult magazines seized from Jackson's home, the admission of evidence from the 1993 case could create yet another embarrassment.

Investigators photographed Jackson's genitals in an attempt to corroborate the accuser's description of what he said were distinctive markings. If the accuser is called to testify, the photographs could be among the evidence.

Posted by Nancy at 10:17 AM | Comments (0)

March 18, 2005

Child advocates fight abuse bill

March 18, 2005 [Associated Press]

JEFFERSON CITY (AP) - Child advocacy groups say proposed changes to the state’s child-protection laws could decrease the number of neglect and abuse cases reported in Missouri by making the criteria for reporting such crimes too specific.

Under the legislation, doctors, teachers, social workers and others who are required to report certain kinds of abuse would have to recognize specific signs before calling the state’s hot line. Those include such indicators as severe bruising, burns and malnutrition.

Teachers and counselors also would be required to call the hot line when they have evidence that teens "under the age of consent" are having sex. But the proposal doesn’t define the state’s age of consent, which is different depending on the age of each person involved.

Critics say the measure would undermine the ability of social workers, doctors and teachers to use their discretion in reporting suspected abuse. The definition of abuse is too specific, they say, and there’s no reason for the provision about underage sex.

Colleen Coble, executive director of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the word "severe" might cause people to wait too long to report abuse that could be stopped before it gets that bad.

"There should be reports of abuse before it becomes classified as ‘severe,’ " she said.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Richard Byrd, R-Kirkwood, said he wants to protect teens 15 and under from being sexually abused and help clear up vague language in the law. He said doctors and teachers aren’t sure what "abuse" really means under Missouri’s current law.

Otto Fajen, a lobbyist for the Missouri chapter of the National Education Association, said the list of criteria could prevent teachers from reporting abuse because they’re not familiar with everything on it.

"The danger that you get into is when someone who suspects abuse says, ‘I think something’s not right here, but I have to look at the list first,’ " Fajen said.

Byrd said he plans to reword the legislation but keep the word "severe" because without it doctors would feel obligated to report such things as sunburns and skinned knees.

Critics also question the provision requiring teachers and counselors to report knowledge of sex between underage teens. They said the age requirement could discourage teens from reporting sexual assaults.

"It wouldn’t take very long for word to spread" among teens "that if you talk about a sexual assault, you’ll be reported," Coble said. "It’s hard enough for adult women to deal with violence in their relationships."

Posted by Nancy at 04:35 AM | Comments (0)

March 07, 2005

Bill would extend statute of limitations on child sex abuse

March 7, 2005 [Associated Press]

SALEM, Ore. - Oregon House members have approved a bill that would extend the statute of limitations on criminals who sexually abuse children.

Currently, prosecution is allowed until the victim is 24 years old - or about six years from when the crime was reported.

But the new bill would extend that to 12 years - or until the victim turns 30.

House Speaker Karen Minnis, a Republican from Wood Village, is the sponsor of the bill.

She says she decided to push the bill after hearing stories about child molesters who never faced prosecution.

Opponents of the measure contend that statutes of limitations prevent prosecutions that rely on faulty memories.

Still, the House voted 49-to-10 to send the measure to the Senate.

Posted by Nancy at 05:57 AM | Comments (0)

March 06, 2005

Reilly changes stance on statute of limitations for child sex abuse

Sunday, March 6, 2005 [Associated Press]

BOSTON— Attorney General Tom Reilly, reversing his earlier stance, said he will support legislation to eliminate the 15-year statute of limitations for sex-abuse crimes against children.

"A predator of a child should never be out of the reach of the law," Reilly said in a telephone interview with the Boston Sunday Globe. "If a prosecutor can make a case, and there are victims who are willing and able to make that case, the law should not stand in their way."

The recent trial of former priest Paul Shanley was a factor for Reilly, who described the prosecution of Shanley as "a very important case."

Reilly met with the victim in that case, and on the day of Shanley's sentencing to 12 to 15 years in prison, the courtroom was filled with alleged Shanley victims who said they couldn't press charges because of the statute of limitations.

"When someone is brave enough to come forward and testify and confront their abuser, they should not be prevented because of any technicality in the law," Reilly said.

In Shanley's case, the then-priest left the state in 1990, stopping the clock on the statute of limitations. After his arrest in 2002, his case became a public example of the problems of prosecuting sexual abusers in cases dating back decades.

In 2003, after Reilly's office delivered a report that found clergy may have abused up to 1,000 children over the last 60 years, Reilly said he could not support elimination of the statute. He said he instead supported tougher penalties for priests and others who didn't report abuse.

Reilly's announcement could give new life to legislation that has foundered in the Legislature despite lobbying from legal advocates and alleged victims. Reilly said he would support the basic outlines of legislation from Rep. Ronald Mariano, D-Quincy.

That legislation would eliminate the 15-year cap for persons who commit rape, assault of a children with intent to commit rape, incest, open and gross lewdness and other crimes.

Advocates for scrapping the cap praised Reilly on Saturday.

"There is no single more effective reform that will prevent future abuse. With the limit, as it stands, abusers and those who shield abusers have an incentive to destroy evidence, and intimidate witnesses, and threaten victims, simply to let the clock run out on these horrific crimes," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Posted by Nancy at 12:37 AM | Comments (0)

February 25, 2005

Senate wants to review child abuse laws

February 25, 2005 [Silver City Sun-News]
By Walter Rubel

SANTA FE, New Mexico — After passing a bill earlier in the session calling for mandatory life sentences for the crime of child abuse resulting in death, the Senate passed a memorial Friday directing that a study be done of all the state’s child abuse laws.

Senate Minority Whip Mary Jane Garcia, D-Doña Ana, sponsored both the mandatory sentencing bill and the memorial that passed Friday. She said the memorial directs the Legislative Council to appoint a committee of experts to report back to the Legislature on the state’s laws dealing with child abuse.

“We would get the professional opinion of prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys and victims advocates,” she said.

During debate on the life-sentence bill passed earlier in the session, there was considerable discussion of the state’s laws dealing with negligence. Several senators expressed concern that those who were simply negligent in not preventing abuse were being treated the same as the actual abusers.
Garcia said those definitions and laws would be reviewed in the study.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Michael Sanchez, who argued against passage of the earlier bill mandating life sentences, said he supported the memorial.
“I think it gives this Legislature a chance to look at these laws and make them more in conformity with other laws in the state of New Mexico,” Sanchez said.
“I know that was part of the discussion that we had the other day when the bill went through, and I think it’s real important for us to look at these issues.”
Sen. Mark Boitano, R-Albuquerque, said that along with looking at laws and sentencing guidelines, the study should also examine ways to prevent child abuse.
“I think it’s important for the state to be aware that child abuse and domestic violence occurs in certain types of relationships,” he said. “Long-term married relationships have less incidence of domestic violence and less incidence of child abuse, where short-term noncommitted relationships, a lot of times cohabitating relationships, have higher incidence of domestic violence and higher incidence of child abuse.”
The memorial passed unanimously 27-0, and will now move to the House for consideration.

Walter Rubel can be reached at wrubel@lcsun-news.com

Posted by Nancy at 03:52 PM | Comments (0)

February 18, 2005

Senate votes to increase child abuse penalties

February 18, 2005 [Associated Press]

SANTA FE -- The Senate wants to increase the criminal penalty for child abusers who kill their victims.

The Senate voted to increase the punishment for intentionally abusing a child, resulting in the child's death.

The punishment would be life in prison -- which in New Mexico means 30 years.

Current law doesn't distinguish between abuse that results in great bodily harm and abuse that results in death.

The current penalty is 18 years in prison.

The measure passed on a vote of 30-to-8.

It now goes to the House.

Posted by Nancy at 11:28 PM | Comments (0)

February 07, 2005

Ex-Congressman Sex Offender Told to Move Out of House

February 7, 2005 [Associated Press]

CHICAGO -- A former congressman who resigned after being convicted of having sex with an underage campaign worker has been ordered to leave his Chicago home because it is near an elementary school.

Police gave Mel Reynolds 30 days to move out of the house because of a state law that prohibits convicted sex offenders from living within 500 feet of a dense concentration of children, police department spokesman Dave Bayless said.

Reynolds, 53, has lived at the home on the city's South Side since 2001, according to public records.

Authorities discovered that Reynolds was living near the Salem Christian Academy when he checked in with police as part of a mandatory annual visit. New computer software identified the problem last month after comparing his address to nearby schools, day-care centers and playgrounds, Bayless said.

Telephone directories did not list a number for Reynolds, and he could not be reached for comment Sunday.

The Chicago Democrat resigned in 1995 after being convicted of sexual misconduct with a 16-year-old campaign worker. In 1997, he was convicted of fraudulently obtaining bank loans and diverting money intended for voter-registration drives into his campaign fund. He was sentenced to five years in prison in that case.

Reynolds served a total of 2 1/2 years in prison before President Clinton commuted his prison term in 2001.

Reynolds made a bid for the congressional seat held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in 2004 but lost in the primary.

Posted by Nancy at 04:40 AM | Comments (0)

Courts 'add to child abuse ordeal'

February 7, 2005 [The Guardian} United Kingdom
By Clare Dyer, legal correspondent

Child victims of sex abuse are traumatised all over again by the court system, according to a study of child witnesses published today.

Children giving evidence in court are routinely accused of lying and suffer distress, including breaking down in tears, while those enduring the long wait for their cases to come to court resort to self-harm, suicide attempts, bedwetting and truancy.

The NSPCC, which commissioned the research with Victim Support, is launching a campaign today to raise £3.2m to help child witnesses through the trauma of giving evidence.

The television personality Noel Edmonds, chairman of the Caring for Children in Court Appeal, said: "It cannot be right in a modern society that children who have suffered so much are treated in this way. We are failing our children if courts don't make the best possible attempts to hear their evidence."

Joyce Plotnikoff and Richard Woolfson interviewed 50 children and young people between seven and 17 who gave evidence in court, 32 in sex offence cases. The children felt intimidated in court and some said appearing as a witness had been as traumatic as the original abuse.

Half did not understand the words or phrases being used in court, just under half said they had been accused of lying, and more than half said they had been very upset, distressed or angry. A fifth of those said they had cried, felt sick or sweated.

One child said: "The defence wasn't nice. He was horrible. He said I was a liar. No one warned me beforehand that he'd say that. I don't feel I got to say everything I wanted to."

The parent of a 14-year-old witness told the researchers the case was not about getting to the truth but about skills, money and technique.

Mr Edmonds said: "This new research is as explosive as it is depressing. Children said they were shouted at, accused of lying, and were confused and upset by the long words used by lawyers, often when they were the victims of serious crimes."

The NSPCC also said children were having to wait unacceptably long periods of time before the cases reached court - on average almost a year - despite longstanding government policy to give priority to child abuse cases.

The charity is calling for more pre-trial support, lawyers and judges to ensure that children understand what they are being asked, an end to aggressive questioning, and monitoring of delays.

The NSPCC lawyer Barbara Esam said: "Suffering child abuse and then having to speak publicly about the experience is an ordeal for a young witness. The NSPCC believes all children must receive pre-trial support to reduce their trauma and help them give the best possible evidence."

The charity is fundraising to ensure its young witness services, which help children and their families with giving evidence, can continue.

Posted by Nancy at 12:09 AM | Comments (0)

January 30, 2005

Open child abuse hearings go well

January 30, 2005 [Associated Press] By Katharine Webster

CONCORD, NH — A small ray of sunshine is creeping into one of the most secretive parts of the state court system: child abuse and neglect hearings.

Usually only the most horrific cases become public, when criminal charges are filed against an adult, because criminal cases are open under constitutional guarantees of a fair trial.

Those cases represent the tip of the iceberg. The majority of abuse and neglect cases are civil and so secretive that only the accused, the prosecutor and witnesses can attend — not foster parents, not grandparents.

Now, under a pilot project, family courts in Grafton and Rockingham counties let anyone attend child abuse and neglect hearings, although judges still may close all or part of them if there is a good reason. Also, those who attend are warned it is illegal to disclose information that could identify a child or parent.

Still, the pilot project could shed light on how well judges, police, court-appointed guardians, social workers and the state Division for Children, Youth and Families do their jobs and whether elected officials are providing enough money for child protection and services for families, advocates say.

"It puts some sunlight on the process and, as we all know, sunlight is the best disinfectant," said former state Sen. Ned Gordon, R-Bristol, a lawyer who handles family law cases.

"People are forbidden by law from commenting on the hearings and could be prosecuted if they criticize DCYF," Gordon said. "That's wrong."

Gordon introduced a bill in 2002 to open abuse and neglect cases and related hearings, such as those to terminate someone's parental rights. Instead, the Legislature set up the pilot project in Grafton County, then expanded it to Rockingham County last July.

The move follows a national trend toward greater openness in such cases, reversing a nationwide move decades earlier to close nearly all cases centered on children: juvenile delinquency cases, abuse and neglect hearings, and even divorce and child custody disputes in some states.

According to a July 2003 survey by the national Conference of Chief Justices, one state — Oregon — now requires that all abuse and neglect hearings be open; 13 states presume they are open but give judges the discretion to close them; and nine states presume they are closed but allow judges to open them.

Six states close them to the general public, but allow people with an interest in a particular case to attend, and 19 states (including New Hampshire) and the District of Columbia mandate complete closure. Ohio has no presumption of either openness or closure and Nevada is conducting a pilot project similar to New Hampshire's.

Steve Varnum is the public policy director of the Children's Alliance of New Hampshire. He supports more openness to educate the public about the division's work. At the same time, he thinks children's and parents' identities should be scrupulously protected.

"DCYF is not about yanking kids out of homes and putting them in foster care," said Varnum, who covered the agency for years as a Concord Monitor reporter.

"That represents a very small percentage, and even in most of those cases kids are going to return home, so it's about more than protecting kids — it's about making families whole, and that's hard to do in an atmosphere where everyone in a small town knows the horrible abuses that have gone on in a family," he said.

Warren Lindsey, an attorney for the division who has handled cases in Grafton County, said he asks judges to close hearings when they involve allegations a child has been sexually assaulted, but otherwise has no problem with them being open. At the same time, protecting the identity of children is critical, he said.

"We want people to know what we do," Lindsey said. "It's always a difficult balancing act. ... When people come forward, it's extremely traumatic for them."

Judge Edwin Kelly, chief justice of the state's district courts, believes the pilot project "has come very close to the ideal" in striking that balance.

In the pilot project, judges are supposed to close testimony involving a child's medical and psychological history and close hearings entirely when the child is present, although that's rare, Kelly said. All written records in civil abuse and neglect cases remain sealed, as does the docket.

That leads to some contradictory results, Kelly acknowledged. In cases that lead to criminal charges, earlier civil actions remain sealed, making it difficult to learn about any abuse complaints involving the same victim or perpetrator and how authorities responded.

And while reporters can attend abuse and neglect hearings at random, they cannot get the schedule of future hearings or records in a particular case from the court, making it hard for them to be watchdogs for the public.

Kelly, who advocates more openness, hopes the Legislature will reconcile the contradictions.

"I would advocate for the widest open procedures that we could have without disclosing intimate psychological, medical and other details," Kelly said. "Any bureaucracy has to be and ought to be held accountable for how it conducts its business."

He said there were no problems during the pilot project's first two years in Grafton County.

State Rep. Carolyn Gargasz, chairwoman of the legislative committee overseeing the project, is most concerned with making sure people accused of abuse or neglect are allowed to have friends or family members in the courtroom.

Gargasz, R-Hollis, wants to assess the effect of openness on families before deciding whether to open hearings statewide.

Closed hearings sometimes become public when one party or side goes public. That was the case last summer in a Massachusetts courtroom when a New Hampshire boy, Patrick Holland, sought to terminate the parental rights of his father, who had murdered Patrick's mother. The only person free to speak with the media, because he was not a party to the case, was Patrick's guardian, Ron Lazisky, of Sandown, N.H.

When The Associated Press challenged the case's closure, the judge said he would like to open it so reporters could hear all sides, but state law required him to close it.

Posted by Nancy at 06:56 PM | Comments (0)