We’re the only state with this law — but ‘no one has time’ for it

The content of case files, like these in Harrison County Youth Court in Gulfport on May 17, 2016, is kept secret, even from attorneys who represent clients.
The content of case files, like these in Harrison County Youth Court in Gulfport on May 17, 2016, is kept secret, even from attorneys who represent clients. File

Mississippi is the only state in the country that prohibits parents from having copies of their own youth court or child-welfare case records.

The Sun Herald reviewed the statutes of all 50 states, as well as the American territories of Guam, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and found only Mississippi has such strict confidentiality laws governing the disclosure of youth court and child-welfare records.

Mississippi’s current statute allows parents only to “inspect” youth court records, not make copies of them. For years, this has been a thorn in the sides of parents caught up in Child Protection Services cases and their lawyers who try to defend them in youth court.

In order to prepare a defense, a parent’s attorney must physically go to the county youth court and ask to see their client’s case file any time they wish to read it.

Some attorneys from around the country were dumbfounded when they learned of Mississippi’s highly restrictive statute.

“In Connecticut, lawyers get these records as a matter of right,” Connecticut attorney Mike Agranoff said. “How else would you cross-examine?”

Arkansas attorney Glen Hoggard said he has never had an issue obtaining copies of documents from Arkansas’ child-welfare division. The same holds true for New York attorney David Lansner, who said lawyers for parents and children are entitled to copies of the records in his state.

Sylvia Long, a supervising attorney with Maryland’s public defender office, said receiving copies of records is a routine matter of discovery and is “always necessary to effectively represent clients.”

‘No one has time for that’

Though Mississippi lawyers are allowed to take notes while inspecting a youth court file, the lawyers are at the mercy of a youth court’s operating hours, a judge’s schedule and the size of a case file, among other factors.

Bay St. Louis attorney Edward Gibson wrestled with those hurdles just last week when he went to look at a client’s file at the Harrison County Youth Court.

“I spent as much time as I could there, about an hour and a half,” Gibson said. “The file was more than a thousand pages. It’s pretty much impossible.”

Long, the lawyer in Maryland, said an attempt was made many years ago to make the Maryland law similar to what Mississippi has — allow lawyers to only inspect the file and take notes.

“No one has time for that,” she said. “We are overworked and overbooked with hearings during working hours. We must go over the discovery with our clients, we must read all of the hundreds of pages in the files, we need to mark them up, tab them, index them. This means we read them on the weekend, at night, early in the morning, between hearings, between meetings, on the fly.

“We also need to have the hard copies because we often need to copy and use them as exhibits, use them in cross-examination of the social worker or use them in preparation for future hearings.”

For parents who don’t have or can’t afford an attorney, the chance of simply inspecting their case file is slim to none. A couple who had a brief run-in with CPS in December experienced this problem after a judge placed a gag order on them in an attempt to prevent them from speaking to the media about their case.

The couple went to the Hancock County Youth Court to try to see their file, but court personnel turned them away, saying they had to first file a motion.

Will the state ever change?

State Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport, said Mississippi has the least transparent child-welfare system in the nation so it’s no surprise the system has also been one of the most problematic in the country.

CPS and its county youth courts have long remained in the crosshairs of civil rights lawsuits, criminal investigations, corruption complaints, federal inquiries, legislative reviews and public reprimands such as one issued several years ago by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

HHS stepped in to reunite a mother and child after a federal investigation revealed the state agency and the Jackson County Youth Court failed to comply with several requirements of federal law.

A report released by HHS in October 2009 pointed to “grave concerns” regarding the state’s handling of the case. “The MDHS staff interviewed did not see these issues as problematic,” the letter said. “This leads us to conclude that this may be how business is conducted and that this is not an isolated incident.”

About 78.3 percent of all reports of child maltreatment CPS investigates are ultimately deemed unsubstantiated — meaning the children are not victims of abuse or neglect. Still, roughly 21 percent of those non-abused, non-neglected children are taken into state custody, according to the HHS.

As the Sun Herald reported in its “Fostering Secrets” investigation, this means one child out of every five investigated and deemed as non-victims is still taken away from his or her parents — a rate that is double the national average.

Mississippi legislators attempted to reform the system this year with more than two dozen bills, including several aimed at allowing parents and their attorneys to have copies of redacted youth court files. One of them passed the House unanimously but died after one legislator placed the bill on the calendar for reconsideration after receiving pressure from several Mississippi youth court judges.

The judges opposed the bill primarily on the belief it would expose the identities of people who report child abuse. However, Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport, said that argument actually makes no sense if one really thinks about it.

Even though identities would be redacted, any exposure of someone’s identity would be no more or less than it is now, Tindell said. He said the current law already allows for inspection of the records, and nothing would stop someone from going to court and looking at the records in an attempt to identify the person reporting the abuse.

“Not allowing copies of the record doesn’t protect anyone’s identity,” Tindell said. “Right now, I can go to youth court and look for someone’s name and simply write it down on my notepad.”

Wesley Muller: 228-896-2322, @WesleySMuller