DHS

Youth court reform bill passes Mississippi House, then halted

The contents of case files — such as these in Harrison County Youth Court in 2016 — is kept secret, even from attorneys who represent clients. A bills in the current legislative session was halted after the House had voted unanimously to pass it.
The contents of case files — such as these in Harrison County Youth Court in 2016 — is kept secret, even from attorneys who represent clients. A bills in the current legislative session was halted after the House had voted unanimously to pass it. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com File

A member of the Mississippi House of Representatives has halted a youth court reform bill that passed the House with a unanimous vote Wednesday.

Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, filed a motion to reconsider House Bill 1210, stopping the bill from going to the Senate, where it has a solid chance of passing, three of the bill’s authors said.

The bill seeks to provide parents with redacted copies of their own youth court case records and is one of the many legislative efforts to reform issues brought to light in the Sun Herald’s “Fostering Secrets” investigation last year.

READ THE INVESTIGATION: FOSTERING SECRETS

Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, authored the bill alongside Reps. Timmy Ladner, R-Poplarville; Deborah Dixon, D-Raymond; David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis; and Greg Haney, R-Gulfport.

The authors and supporters have spearheaded the effort as a “common sense” reform approach that would create a fair, more-transparent court system for child abuse and neglect cases and doesn’t require funding.

It’s unclear why Baker filed the motion to reconsider. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday or Thursday.

The Council of Youth Court Judges drafted a memo opposing the bill and placed a copy on every House member’s desk Thursday morning.

The memo read: “Children’s privacy must be kept paramount” in instances of child abuse or neglect. It said the disclosure of such records by the parents to others would have traumatizing effects and would have “lifelong harmful and embarrassing consequences.”

The memo, however, failed to say why there would be such consequences and failed to provide any real-life examples of such incidents occurring.

The memo also criticized the bill, saying juvenile-delinquency records, if shown by parents to others, would follow kids into adult life, and lead to the identity of anonymous reporters of child abuse.

But the bill does not change the way reports of child abuse are handled or maintained, and it would allow parents to receive only redacted records so as to prevent the disclosure of any identifying information.

A rebuttal memo in support of the bill was released later, pointing out the most serious cases of child abuse are currently public information under state statute. It said the child’s name is even released in cases of a death or in cases where the child’s condition is labeled as “serious” or “critical.”

If disclosing such records were going to flood every corner of social media and have enormous traumatic effects, then it would be happening already, the memo said.

Severe child abuse cases also often end up in criminal court, where records and proceedings have been open to the public for centuries.

Ladner said he would try to have the motion tabled Friday so it will move to the Senate.

If not tabled, the bill would die on the calendar, Baria said.

Judges, parents, attorney offer different perspectives on the secrecy of Youth Court in Mississippi, and whether open courts would make a difference.

Wesley Muller: 228-896-2322, @WesleySMuller

  Comments