Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Shedding light on foster care abuses

A new law review article provides more evidence that “sunshine is good for children”

In a 2009 post to this Blog, I wrote about how a tiny newspaper in a small town in Tennessee exposed an injustice:

In 2005, the Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat, revealed that, at least twice, a local judge ordered Mexican mothers to learn English – or lose their children forever. (Access to the story may require free registration on the newspaper's website.) In one case the child still lived with the mother, in the other the child was in foster care. In both cases, the mothers spoke an indigenous language rather than Spanish.

NCCPR helped call the cases to the attention of national media. The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times did stories, the Southern Poverty Law Center heard about the case from news accounts and got involved. The mother at risk of losing her child had her case dismissed. In the other case, where the child already had been placed with affluent foster parents, custody was awarded to the birth father. The judge was disciplined by the Tennessee Court on the Judiciary.

The story of how the Lebanon Democrat got the story is almost as compelling.

Court hearings in Tennessee are at least nominally open to the press and the public.  Judges often throw reporters out, but at least they can sit there until it happens.  As a matter of principle, when the Lebanon Democrat was interested in a case, they’d send a reporter who would stay until the judge noticed and threw him out.

It was while waiting for the case that originally interested him that the reporter, the late Brooks Franklin, saw and heard one of the cases involving the Mexican mothers.

In most states, Franklin never would have gotten in the door.  In most states, court hearings in cases of alleged child abuse and neglect remain closed to press and public.

As with just about all the rotten things done by people in child welfare, closing court hearings is, of course, supposedly for the benefit of the children – in fact, it’s so child welfare agencies can cover up their mistakes and judges can get away with what that judge tried to do in Lebanon, Tennessee.

A fair number of states, however, do have open court hearings (the exact number depends on how one defines “open”).  And of all the courts to open them, not one has closed them again.  That’s because the Chicken Littles were wrong.  None of the harm predicted by opponents of open courts came to pass.  As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in this comprehensive series nearly a decade ago, all over the country one-time opponents have become converts to openness.

We have a summary of the series and other information on the case for open courts in NCCPR's Due Process Agenda.

The former chief judge of New York’s highest court, Judith Kaye, opened these hearings in New York in 1997.  Says Judge Kaye: “Sunshine is good for children.”

And now, Prof. Matthew Fraidin, Associate Professor of Law at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law significantly advances the case for open court hearings in a new article in the current issue of the Maine Law Review.  It’s available by clicking here and then clicking on the download link at the top of the page.  And see also this story from the San Jose Mercury News on legislation that would  open these hearings in California.

It’s been said that “Justice must be seen to be done.”  That makes opening courts the first step toward doing justice for children.