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Behind the veil: The effect of open child protection hearings studied
By Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
September 28, 2001

A national court research organization has found that opening child protection hearings and records to the public has had virtually no major effect in Minnesota. Child protection hearings and records have traditionally been kept private in order to protect the confidentiality of parents and children. But in the past few years, 16 states - including Minnesota - have lifted that cloak in hopes that the public would better understand the often heart-wrenching decisions faced in juvenile court and lead to greater accountability of child protection workers.

The National Center for State Courts, a non-profit organization which conducts research and educates courts on how to improve the administration of justice, studied the effects of opening child protection cases in the 12 Minnesota counties that took part in the three-year pilot project.

The research showed the biggest impact of allowing public access to hearings and records fell on court staff who had to spend extra time going through the files and redacting names. Overall, the report found the open hearings didn't appear to harm the children or parents involved or change the courtroom atmosphere. But some within the child protection system question whether the project was really tested. News reporters, policy makers and the general public didn't flock to these hearings either.

"There was no plan to actually involve the public at the very beginning, no formal plan," says Rebecca Kutty of WATCH, an organization that monitors the courts. "One of the things they say in the conclusion is to have a more formal plan to involve and educate the public."

There was, however, a slight increase in the number of family members attending these hearings. Susanne Smith, a guardian ad litem who represents the child's best interest in these cases, cautiously says the doors should stay open. "I certainly would not want concerned friends and family members to suddenly be locked out of the process again, that would not be a good thing," she says.

Public defenders have long opposed opening child protection cases to the public and that hasn't changed. Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Leonardo Castro says since the report didn't find any major plusses to opening the hearings, there's no substantial reason to risk harming a family's confidentiality. "I don't think there's any positive effect that comes out of society knowing the problems of a family; that need to be solved with that family and the services of the county," he says.

Herbert Lefler has served as a Hennepin County juvenile court judge for five years. He supports open child protection hearings but disagrees with one of the underlying reasons for the project: that openness will lead to greater accountability by child protection workers.

"Besides the line workers, there are people higher up that make decisions on how line social workers do their jobs and what resources are available to them. Has the open process made them feel more accountable? I don't know. This report doesn't really deal with that," according to Lefler.

There was another gap in the report. While judges, attorneys, guardians ad litem, social workers were all surveyed, the clients of the system, the parents and children in court were not.

Researcher Fred Cheesman says the center didn't have the resources to get that input. "You're talking about issues where families are being divided and there's a lot of acrimony. So it's difficult to get that kind of client data. If time and money had allowed, I would've been interested to get their impressions," Cheesman says.

Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz has ordered a hearing next month on whether the pilot project should continue, and if so, whether to extend it statewide.