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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Kentucky Legislature Should Open Some Juvenile Court Hearings, Say Judges.

Judges: Legislature should act to open more juvenile proceedings

When legislators return to Frankfort Monday there is some important unfinished business that the House should address.

In the interest of Kentucky's children, it should pass Senate Bill 157, sponsored by Sen. David Givens to provide greater transparency in juvenile cases.

SB 157 creates a limited, measured pilot project to test whether Kentucky should presumptively open the juvenile courts of the state. The bill would establish a four-year pilot project to open certain juvenile court hearings in three to seven diverse judicial districts or circuits. In the participating courts some juvenile and family court proceedings would be presumed to be open, rather than confidential, as they are now.

Proceedings to be presumptively open would include some child abuse and neglect hearings and felony proceedings involving juveniles 14 or older.

The chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court would select the pilot sites and set guidelines for public attendance and limiting identifying information about the parties. The presiding judge could close a particular case according to specific guidelines, considering such factors as the nature of the case, age of the child and benefit to the public and all parties.

Some juvenile and family court cases should be open, because in these courts both children and caregivers are held accountable. In these courts children are protected from abuse and neglect and efforts are made to preserve or reunify families.

In these courts children are prosecuted for crimes. Society should ensure that every child and every family in need of court oversight has access to fair, effective and timely justice. We must ensure that the agencies involved are doing their jobs and are adequately staffed and funded.

By closing the doors to these courts, we hide problems from the public. Closed courts contribute to a perception that our system is failing our children or hiding important information from the public. Closed courts diminish the accountability of those working in the system and those passing through it.

The public has a legitimate interest in the work of juvenile courts. Closure precludes a vital opportunity to increase public awareness about the critical problems faced by the child welfare system and courts and to focus community attention on issues of child abuse and neglect and juvenile crime.

The public needs to know if state agencies, judges and prosecutors are doing their jobs and if not, why not? Openness and transparency will help to answer these questions.

The passage of SB 157, creating a pilot project to open some hearings, would be a small but important step to move Kentucky in a direction that most other states have already taken. It is time for Kentucky to move toward openness and transparency by passing SB 157.

Patricia Walker FitzGerald is chief judge of Jefferson County Family Court. This column was also signed by seven other family court judges.

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