St. Louis Family Court Experiments With Open Hearings

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(AP) The city’s long-confidential family court will begin more open hearings in a pilot project to determine whether scrutiny will breed accountability in the foster care system.

The change begins Sunday and will run through 2005 in St. Louis. If successful, it could result in a loosening of privacy restrictions on family courts elsewhere in Missouri.

“If we’re not doing what we should be doing then people should find that out,” said Judge Thomas Frawley in St. Louis. “The possibility of the press coming in at random may keep the system on its toes.”

The state Legislature has sought to reform the foster care system since the 2002 death of 2-year-old Dominic James, whose foster father was convicted of fatally abusing the boy.

Clay County Circuit Judge James Welsh said he worries that an open court could place families in crisis under unnecessary scrutiny. “I don’t need their friends and neighbors coming in to see these families’ cases,” he said.

Frawley’s policy carries conditions meant to protect children, including closing the court when any child testifies and ordering the press not to identify children involved.

Under existing law, a judge can — under special circumstances — open family courts to the public. Under the pilot program, the assumption is switched — all family court hearings will be open unless the judge deems there are special circumstances to warrant closing them.

The state Supreme Court’s decision to let judges experiment with open courts follows a recommendation of a special commission on foster care that met last year. About a dozen states have opted to open family court cases.

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