Chief Justice Lambert, lawmakers announce legislation to open court proceedings in child-protection cases

Jan. 30, 2008 

FRANKFORT, Ky. – Chief Justice Joseph E. Lambert, Rep. Susan Westrom and Rep. Tom Burch announced legislation at a news conference today that would open certain Kentucky child-protection proceedings to the public. Child-protection court cases typically involve dependency, neglect and abuse, and termination of parental rights.

Currently, all juvenile court proceedings in Kentucky are closed and the records sealed. The legislation would not include opening juvenile criminal proceedings.

The legislation, which is expected to be filed this week, would authorize the creation of three to seven pilot projects to examine the feasibility and effectiveness of opening child-protection proceedings to the public. The pilot projects would operate for four years and would help determine if the practice should be expanded statewide. The pilot sites have not been identified.

“This legislation is a groundbreaking first step in allowing greater public access to juvenile court proceedings,? Chief Justice Lambert said. “It is vitally important that we maintain public trust and confidence in our child welfare system. This pilot program will give us time to learn whether opening child-protection proceedings to the public will bring about substantive improvements in our ability to protect Kentucky’s children.?

Rep. Westrom, D-Lexington, will be the bill’s primary sponsor, and Rep. Burch, D-Louisville, will be the main co-sponsor.

“It’s been a pleasure working on this initiative with the Chief Justice, who has the same desire I do in making sure families feel safe and heard in our courtrooms,? Rep. Westrom said.

Increased transparency in child-protection proceedings may enhance accountability among judges, attorneys, social workers and other professionals who have roles in those cases, Chief Justice Lambert said. Opening the courts would also serve as a way to alert interested parties to the proceedings who would otherwise be unaware of them, such as extended family members who might want to show support.     

Rep. Burch, who is chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee, said it is important for the public to have the ability to witness court proceedings in child-protection cases.

“It’s about time the courts are opened up to let people see what goes on in decisions involving families,? Rep. Burch said. “By opening up the courts, I feel the public would be better informed and would see the good and the bad in some of the court decisions. I really appreciate the help and involvement of Chief Justice Lambert in bringing this legislation forward. He is showing great leadership.?

If the legislation passes, Chief Justice Lambert will be responsible for creating the corresponding Rules of Administrative Procedures under which the program would operate.

During the four-year pilot period, the Administrative Office of the Courts would monitor the program’s guidelines and limitations, suggest potential improvements and recommend rule changes if the initiative were to be implemented statewide.

Under the legislation, the AOC would provide an annual report to the Legislative Research Commission, which would include statistics, findings and recommendations. The AOC would also prepare periodic progress and statistical reports and provide suggestions to the Interim Joint Committee on Health and Welfare and the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary at the discretion of Chief Justice Lambert. 

Further study of opening court proceedings in child-protection cases was a recommendation of the Transparency Workgroup of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services Blue Ribbon Panel on Adoption. Reps. Westrom and Burch are members of the panel, which is chaired by CHFS Deputy Secretary Steve Nunn.

“We view this legislation as an opportunity to explore the issue of transparency on a pilot basis,? Deputy Secretary Nunn said. “We look forward to working with the courts to determine whether and when transparency is appropriate, while balancing the best interests of children in our care.? 

Rep. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, praised the Blue Ribbon Panel on Adoption for its efforts. “The task force doing this work is to be congratulated for its production of this good beginning of a solution for a complex problem,? said Rep. Stein, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. 

Kentucky is one of approximately 20 states that have completely closed proceedings in child-protection cases, according to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Other states have varying degrees of openness in their courts. 

As the administrative and fiscal agent for the Kentucky Court of Justice, the AOC supports the activities of approximately 4,000 court system employees, including the elected offices of justices, judges and circuit court clerks. 

  

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