Juvenile Courts Try Opening Child Protective Cases

Juvenile Courts Try Opening Child Protective Cases

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Monday marked the start of a pilot project in which 10 juvenile court judges will open child protective cases to the public.

"We wanted to have that sense that there's a veil of secrecy put to rest," said Robin Arnold-Williams, executive director of the stats Department of Human Services.

The 10 judges are in the 3rd District, covering Salt Lake, Tooele and Summit counties, and the 6th District, representing Garfield, Kane, Piute, Sanpete, Sevier and Wayne counties.

The pilot project continues until mid-2005, and, if successful, will go statewide July 1, 2005.

Thirteen other states have opened their child welfare cases.

Even those advancing the program have had some misgivings.

"I am still worried about individual cases and what happens to a child," when details of abuse against them are learned by extended family, neighbors and classmates, said Kristin Brewer, director of the state Guardian ad Litem's Office, which provides legal representation for children's interests in child welfare cases.

However, Brewer, who was a member of the working group that studies the issue before it went to the Legislature, believes the change will be "great for the system."

The Utah program does not grant public access to files regarding child welfare cases. Records such as psychological exams, investigative reports, prior judgments and hearing schedules remain confidential.

Access also can be cut off in individual cases by judges who have the discretion to close their courtrooms when asked.

A ruling on why a courtroom is closed to the public will be made in open court and can be appealed the appeal will not halt proceedings. Judges will continue to move cases along in order to meet federal timelines.

"This is all about (children)," 3rd District Court Judge Sharon McCully said during a recent orientation for reporters. "Just think how it would be for them to go to school and hear: 'I heard your stepfather raped you."'

Brewer has not told her attorneys to request court closures based on the type of abuse alleged.

"I trained my attorneys to look on a case by case basis," Brewer said. "I have not taken a blanket (closure) position."

After a year, the Department of Human Services' Office of Services Review will randomly select 25 cases from each district to study and determine the effect of the project.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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