Cases of the 12-year-old girl that had been in the custody of a man who turned her into a prostitute and the murder of two girls killed by their adopted mother are prime examples of how the sealing of information from public scrutiny can be detrimental to children placed in foster care, according to two local child protection advocates.
Matthew Fraidin, a University of the District of Columbia law professor, said there are many injustices taking place in the District’s family court surrounding children who are routinely abused while residing in foster and adoptive homes in the District. He said hopefully, Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration will be more adept at ensuring the troubled Child and Family Services Agency keeps pace with reforms established nearly two years ago in the wake of heavily publicized child atrocities.
Overall, said Fraidin, who has teamed with Richard Wexler, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.- based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, he wants the family services division of D.C. Superior Court to allow the public access to hearings and records in order to prevent other tragedies involving CFSA and other agencies– including the Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services – that has guardianship over children.
At this time, the District, Maryland and Virginia are excluded from a lineup of 14 states that allow the media and general public access to child protection proceedings.
“With closed courts, children’s fates are decided secretly. Lawyers, caseworkers and judges are unaccountable,” Fraidin told the AFRO. “With open courts, we can learn why CFSA and its D.C. Family Court missed Renee Bowman’s financial problems and criminal history . With open courts – such as those in more than 20 states – children have more eyes watching out for them.”
Fraidin claims that more than 20 years after a court-ordered reform plan for CFSA, it has become clear that attorneys, caseworkers and judges have proven the city cannot manage CFSA on its own. He also said that despite efforts to rectify mistakes made at CFSA, too many children have still been needlessly been removed from their homes by bureaucrats bent on keeping their jobs.
Wexler, who has been an ardent critic of the manner in which former Mayor Adrian Fenty’s administration handled cases involving children under its watch, said he and Fraidin are “strongly pushing” to have family court proceedings open to the public. If successful, it would “completely open the system,” and allow the public to see mistakes before they turn fatal, noted Wexler who said that Fraidin and his students have been privy to several debacles that have taken place in family court. “They see what’s going on,” Wexler said, “and while they want everybody else to know about all of the injustice, they can’t tell anyone.”
Fraidin added that if the public could see what goes on in child hearings in the District, they would see that almost every child who is separated from their family is Black and poor. In many instances, he said the children would have been better off left at their own homes.
“The nuclear secret of child welfare is that most children in foster care do not need to be there,” Fraidin said. “Secrecy laws mean that reality is hidden from the public – voters, taxpayers, concerned citizens.” At-large Councilman Phil Mendelson, who is familiar with Fraidin and Wexler’s thrust for open records and court sessions, was not immediately available for comment.
However, he said in an interview late last year that the court provides a limited amount of information pertaining to child custody and other matters involving them. The information is also specific about what can be released and to whom, he said.
Mendelson also explained that while the city does provide parents limited access to court records, that information goes no further, and that once the Department of Youth Rehabilitative Service, for instance, gains custody, parents are on the losing end.