State Politics

Sun Herald investigation sparks more youth court legislation

A Coast legislator introduced three bills last week designed to reduce conflicts of interest and provide transparency in youth courts as part of continuing efforts to reform the child welfare system.

Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, authored the bills after having introduced two other reform measures the week before.

The new legislation includes House Bill 1210, House Bill 1233 and House Bill 1211. The reforms are a response to the Sun Herald’s “Fostering Secrets” investigation, Bennett said.

HB 1210 would amend the youth court confidentiality statute, Section 43-21-261, and require youth courts to provide copies of child-welfare case records to the child’s parent or guardian. Currently, the statute is ambiguous on whether parents and their attorneys are allowed to have copies of their youth court file.

A similar measure, HB 1233, would amend the statute to give the media access to youth court records in any case where a child abuse or neglect allegation has been made, however, any identifying information concerning the child would be redacted from the records prior to release.

The bill goes further to state, “the records shall be provided at cost to the news media.” It also defines news media as “bona fide radio and television stations, newspapers, journals or magazines or bona fide news bureaus or associations which in turn furnish information solely to bona fide radio or television stations, newspapers, journals or magazines.”

The public already has access to records involving serious cases of child abuse or neglect. If a child’s physical condition is labeled as medically serious or critical or a child dies, the confidentiality provisions of the youth court records statute do not apply, according to Section 43-21-261.

In such serious abuse or neglect cases, the public is allowed access to the child’s name, address, case status, investigation dates and other information.

The third reform Bennett introduced last week would change the way youth court prosecutors are chosen. Currently, youth court judges appoint their own prosecutors, but HB 1211 would transfer that appointment power to district attorneys.

Bennett believes the new appointment process would remove any potential for bias by the judge or prosecutor.

A judge is supposed to be an impartial, neutral party, but if the prosecutor can be hired and fired by the judge, the two are more likely to work together against the defendant, Bennett said.

The measures Bennett introduced two weeks ago include HB 844 and HB 1202.

The former would prohibit people from making anonymous reports of child abuse or neglect to the state Department of Child Protection Services, formerly a division of the Department of Human Services. Rep. Timmy Ladner, R-Poplarville, and Rep. Steve Hopkins, R-Southaven, filed almost identical bills less than a week into the legislative session.

Under the bill, average citizens can still maintain their anonymity when making a report because their information will be kept confidential by the agency. Only when there is suspicion of a malicious false report will someone’s information be disclosed.

The latter, HB 1202, would authorize a parent to request a case be transferred to chancery court during an involuntary termination of parental rights proceeding. The intent is to increase fairness for all parties by placing the case under a fresh set of eyes, Bennett said.

Wesley Muller: 228-896-2322, @WesleySMuller