Who's in contempt?

October 31, 1994

The case of Jacqueline Bouknight is doubly mysterious, and doubly troubling. She has been jailed for 6 1/2 years without having been charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one. Some of the facts are cloaked in secrecy. Should the open-ended civil contempt ruling against Ms. Bouknight be lifted on the ground that it has conspicuously failed to accomplish its purpose?

Hardly anyone is in a position to render an informed opinion, and the few who are have been legally gagged. Some of them, moreover, may be protecting their own professional reputations as much as they are protecting the child's welfare.

The facts available to the public: Ms. Bouknight's infant son, Maurice, disappeared in 1987. Juvenile authorities badly want to find him because of evidence that he had been physically abused in his first months of life, to the point he was temporarily taken from his mother. When he was returned to her care, strict conditions were imposed by a judge. One was that the Department of Social Services monitor Maurice's condition. After a couple of checks, DSS workers failed to see him again. They stopped trying for seven months, despite a psychologist's warning Maurice should not be left in his mother's care. Not until a relative jogged their memories did DSS look for Maurice again. Ms. Bouknight refused to produce the child for examination. Fearing harm had come to the boy, officials took her to court. A judge ordered her jailed for civil contempt until she revealed Maurice's whereabouts. That was in 1988.

Maryland's highest court ruled Ms. Bouknight's Fifth Amendment rights were violated by the imprisonment, but the Supreme Court disagreed. The issue is whether her continued jailing accomplishes anything. If she hasn't talked in 6 1/2 years, will she ever? One problem is the cloud of innuendo. Inquiries are met with veiled suggestions that there is a lot more than meets the eye. All the more reason to open the record to public view.

Records of juvenile proceedings are generally sealed, for good reason. Abused children, even law-breaking children, deserve not to carry youthful scars into adulthood. But Maurice is not being protected by court secrecy any longer, even if he is alive. His identity has been public since police sought him as a missing person. The only people protected by continued secrecy are the officials and lawyers who badly bungled Maurice's case. Perhaps there is even more damning evidence of official misfeasance in the record.

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