Bill to open family courts passes key hurdle

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comFebruary 22, 2012 

FRANKFORT — A bill that would create a pilot project to allow open proceedings in family courts was approved unanimously by a House panel Wednesday and is expected to win the full House's approval.

House Bill 239 would create at least one pilot project in each of the seven Supreme Court districts to open family court proceedings, including abuse, neglect and dependency hearings. The pilot project would last four years and would allow the courts to determine what information in those court proceedings could be released.

A similar bill was passed by the House in 2010 but never made it through the Republican-controlled Senate.

Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, primary sponsor of HB 239, told the House Judiciary Committee that opening the courts would add another level of accountability to the child-protection system.

That system has been under fire for 18 months, since a Franklin Circuit Court judge ordered the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to release internal child protection records when a child dies or nearly dies as a result of abuse and neglect.

Some of those documents have revealed problems within the child-protection system, such as a lack of required internal reviews when the cabinet had previous contact with the family.

Westrom said a similar bill died in 2010 because there wasn't enough time to hear it in the Senate. This year, Westrom said, she hopes judges will help educate lawmakers about the merits of the bill.

"A lot of these judges will be able to talk to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee," Westrom said.

Many family court judges have been pushing to open the courts for several years. Jefferson County Family Circuit Court Judge Patricia FitzGerald said a national association for juvenile courts has backed opening juvenile court proceedings for several years.

FitzGerald said states that have opened their courts have not reported any negative outcomes, she said.

"We've never seen it happen," she said.

Previous commissions that examined that state's child-protection system have recommended opening the courts to add more accountability to the judicial and child protection system, FitzGerald noted.

Family Court Judge Jason Fleming of Christian County said he used to think that family courts should be closed and that it should be up to the judge to decide whether to open the courtroom.

Fleming said that even if the media does not name a child — newspapers generally do not publish names of underage victims — he was concerned that in smaller counties the public still would be able to determine a child's identity.

But he said the bill alleviated many of those concerns because judges could decide what information would be released. The bill also would allow them to close their courts in certain instances.

Hearings involving sexual abuse would remain closed under the pilot project.

Westrom said there will be enough volunteer judges in each of the seven Supreme Court judicial districts to start the pilot project, which will not cost taxpayers any money.

Beth Musgrave: (859) 231-3205. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com

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