More openness in juvenile court proceedings highlights new state laws

Saturday, June 25, 2005

A handful of changes in state law take effect with the new fiscal year in July.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Child abuse, neglect and foster care hearings -- now held secretly in most courtrooms -- will be open to the public starting Friday next week.

There are exceptions, such as when a juvenile is testifying or when a judge deems it necessary. Most court records in child welfare cases also will be open beginning with cases filed July 1, though the child's name remains protected.

State court officials say the open court process has been tested in St. Louis for about a year and is working well. Opening the hearings did not result in a flood of spectators, just a few more family members and occasionally a member of the media, said Gary Waint, state director of juvenile and adult court programs.

The Missouri Supreme Court also has developed rules to guide judges on when to close hearings.

The newly open juvenile system is among a handful of changes in state law that take effect with the new fiscal year in July. Most state laws kick in in late August.

Other states have also moved to open juvenile court proceedings and fears that children would be harmed by the change haven't materialized, Waint said.

What the open court could do, he said, is ensure that abusers can't hide behind the process, with no ability for the public or media to know the truth.

"There is a lot of concern about open records and open hearings in protecting the juvenile, but generally it has resulted in more parents and perpetrators being disclosed," he said. "If a parent is the victimizer and they can run to the media and say 'I didn't do this,' now those allegations will be available for the public to see."

Children's advocates had some concern about open the juvenile judicial process, but one organization says it's also important to restore public trust in the system.

"Balanced against that need is also a need for the system to be held accountable, for there to be some openness about the proceedings," said Ruth Ehresman, policy director for Citizens for Missouri's Children. "It's really important to Missouri to regain the public confidence in the child protection system. There have been some egregious cases that have really shredded the public's confidence."

The legislation requiring open hearings and records also calls for the state to increase its use of private contractors to provide case management services for children and families.

The department of social services awarded contracts last month for the new fiscal year to provide case management services to about 1,900 children, up from about 1,300 currently. About $17.2 million is budgeted to pay the contractors.

The additional contracting means the state now will handle about 18 percent of children's case work through private contractors, department spokeswoman Deborah Scott said.

The contracts include financial incentives for agencies to move children quickly into permanent homes. Contractors also will undergo an outside evaluation to see how they're working.

Changes in the child welfare system are part of a broad bill passed in 2004, in response to the 2002 death of Dominic James, a 2-year-old Springfield boy whose foster father was found guilty of shaking him to death.

A few other laws also kick in next Friday. The new $19.2 billion state budget takes effect, and with it, the first wave of cuts in Medicaid benefits.

The cuts will eventually eliminate coverage for 90,600 of Missouri's 1 million Medicaid recipients and reduce services for scores more.

Also, under a state law passed last year, everyone obtaining or renewing a driver's license, permit or state identification card starting July 1 must provide proof of their "lawful presence" in the United States.

For U.S. citizens, the department of revenue will require a birth certificate or valid passport, or a certificate of citizenship or naturalization. Non-citizens must provide specific documents to prove they belong in the country. Another part of the law stipulates that licenses for non-citizens must expire when their legal presence in the country ends.

Gov. Matt Blunt also recently signed legislation imposing a new tax starting July 1 on Medicaid managed care providers, who in turn would get an increase in their government payments. The tax arrangement is similar to one the state already has in place with hospitals, nursing homes and pharmacies that serve Medicaid patients.

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