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Youth court reforms gain ground as more bills are introduced

The content of case files — such as these in Harrison County Youth Court in 2016 — is kept secret, even from attorneys who represent clients. Several bills in the current legislative session are trying to change that.
The content of case files — such as these in Harrison County Youth Court in 2016 — is kept secret, even from attorneys who represent clients. Several bills in the current legislative session are trying to change that. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com File

Child-welfare reform efforts have picked up steam with more than 20 bills introduced by state lawmakers.

The issue was brought to the public’s and legislators’ attention after the Sun Herald’s “Fostering Secrets” investigation last year.

One of the more notable efforts is a Senate bill that takes aim at youth court referees.

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Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport, introduced SB 2821, which places four-year term limits on youth court referees. Counties without a county court system, such as Hancock, manage their youth courts through chancery court. In those counties, the chancellor appoints a referee, typically a family law attorney, to serve as the youth court judge. Such an appointment currently could last indefinitely.

Tindell’s bill would affect all current youth court referees, setting their terms to expire Dec. 31, 2019. All future referees would be appointed for only four-year terms. The act conforms with the term limits for chancery, circuit and county court judges.

A Senate judiciary committee passed SB 2520 on Tuesday, which would give parents access to their youth court case records.

Co-authored by Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune, and Tindell, SB 2520 would amend the youth court confidentiality statute, Section 43-21-261, to require youth courts to provide copies of child-welfare case records to the child’s parent who is a defendant in the case. Similar bills were introduced in the House of Representatives.

Currently, the statute is ambiguous on whether parents and their attorneys are allowed to have and keep copies of their youth court file or simply examine the file. Youth courts on the Coast have interpreted the statute to deny a defendant a copy of his or her court records.

Hancock County has by far the highest rate of children in the DHS system in the state. Parents, an attorney and employees of the Mississippi Department of Human services weigh in. DHS employees say things are improving.

Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, introduced a version of the bill that would allow a parent’s attorney, not a parent, to make and keep copies of the records.

Baria authored four other reform measures:

▪ HB 1215 seeks to place court reporters (professional stenographers) or electronic recording devices in youth courts to make a complete record of testimony and evidence.

▪ HB 594 would prohibit people from making anonymous reports of child abuse or neglect, a measure similar to bills from several other legislators.

▪ HB 659 defines the term “reasonable efforts” in regard to youth court law to mandate Child Protection Services exercise “reasonable care and due diligence” by using any available resources “to prevent the unnecessary removal of the child.”

▪ HB 1234 would give Court Appointed Special Advocates more authority to assist in child abuse and neglect cases.

Wesley Muller: 228-896-2322, @WesleySMuller

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