Open all juvenile courts

February 14, 2005

WHY DID 18-month-old Alicia Cureton die? So many details of her life in the child welfare system are hidden in juvenile court records, it's hard to even guess. What's clear is that there were plenty of warning signs that might have averted her death - and indications that keeping such secrets could be harming other children, too.

Only a relative handful of people know what happens to the 36,000 children passing through the state's juvenile courts each year. Child welfare agencies, caseworkers, lawyers, judges and other court workers are forbidden, by state law and judicial procedure, from telling where these children wind up. That makes it hard to fix a system that produces such deadly results for Alicia and others.

Alicia, born drug-addicted and immediately removed into the care of the Department of Social Services, was never again supposed to be left alone with her mother. To DSS, that meant she should remain in foster care on the way to being adopted. But the court disagreed, giving her instead to Alicia's father, who lived with the mother.

Details of this lethal mistake are now available only because Alicia died. Murder charges brought the case into criminal court, where trials are open and so are case files. But before she was killed, the family appeared, time and again, in juvenile court, where all records and many proceedings are closed.

There is plenty in the adult court file - reports of domestic abuse at the home, a history of other siblings being removed permanently from the mother - that suggests this was not a proper place for a baby. But even after her death, most of Alicia's and her family's juvenile court history is secret.

There may well be extenuating circumstances that prompted the judge's decision. This could have been an instance of applying the state's overarching "keep the family together" philosophy at the expense of a child's safety. It could have been an anomaly. Or it could be part of a trend. There is simply no way to know.

The Maryland judiciary and the General Assembly should move quickly to revoke the needless secrecy that surrounds juvenile courts and files. Keeping the process secret didn't protect Alicia, and it won't protect the next child.

It didn't protect Ciara Jobes, who died horribly in 2002 after repeated abuse by her guardian. The court put her in the care of a nonrelative with debilitating mental troubles. Telling her story in public - possible only after she was dead - led to the bill now in the legislature that would require guardians to meet higher standards, including a cleaner bill of health.

There surely are valid reasons for why agencies and the courts made their decisions. But they remain unknown, and that is not as it should be. Public courts serving the public good should be open to the public.

That's the way it works in a dozen other states, including New York, which has had open juvenile courts for two decades. Some of the strongest critics of openness in those states, who feared it would irreparably harm the children, now acknowledge that they were needlessly alarmed.

Marylanders, too, should not have to wait until a child dies to know how the state handles the most vulnerable children in its care.

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