Fresh air needed in children’s trials

I find the proposed new law on children’s issues currently being debated in the state legislature to be very interesting.  The law calls for more openness in these cases and allows either the state or the parents to request a jury trial in a termination of parental rights case.

While I still find myself concerned about the reaction of children to the sordid stories of their family life becoming public, I also find myself thinking that it could have some very interesting, if unexpected, consequences.

Those of us who work in this field are used to a certain level of horror with every case we get.  While we may never get totally immune to the shudder we feel as yet another story of abuse hits our desks, we know it comes with the territory.  And so we go in to each case knowing that the details are going to be minimally sad, sometimes horrifying.

The thing is that the general public is not generally hardened to the tales we see so routinely. The only time the public becomes aware of a child’s specific story is when something truly horrible happens like the recent case in the Valley where foster children were allegedly abused and tortured or cases where a child dies from the abuse.

When those stories hit the headlines, the people usually react with revulsion and horror.  So I have to wonder if this bill passes and courts can be petitioned for jury trials in cases of termination of parental rights, just how much of an advantage this really gives to the parents involved.

Termination trials are long, involved and hard.  No one in this state takes children permanently away from their parents unless there is overwhelming evidence that the parents are unwilling or unable to correct the behavior that brought the children into custody in the first place.  These reasons can be as simple as a mom refusing to leave a sexual abuser who has preyed on her child to parents who see nothing wrong in drunken, abusive behavior because these are their kids and, damn it, they’ll raise them any way they like.

In between these extremes are many parents who are simply unable to walk away from the addictions that destroyed their ability to safely parent their children.  Many have gone through numerous sobriety programs only to relapse again and again until the state must make the decision that the children cannot and will not be raised in foster care.

Now imagine you or a co-worker or friend getting called to sit on this kind of jury. Imagine hearing tales of children left alone for days on end, children with no food because the money was spent on drugs, children sexually abused while mom dragged them from “boyfriend” to “boyfriend” as she looked for her next hit of drugs or booze.  Imagine seeing pictures of beaten children, pictures of children with sores on their bodies from the filth they were left to sit in, graphic pictures of little girls and boys who at three are no longer virgins.

How neutral could you really stay?  No matter what instructions you are given by the judge about the law, the emotions those tales and images raised in your mind would never completely go away. They’d linger as you thought of your child at home surrounded by love and safety.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying a judge hearing this case would be inured to these feelings, or that a jury couldn’t come to a reasoned conclusion based on the law. But a judge is trained to dispassionately apply the law based on the evidence presented in court and has perhaps a better frame of reference as to where any given case falls on the spectrum of horror.

Yep, I see this new law as a very interesting one. And a very educational one. Perhaps we really do need jury trials. Perhaps they should absolutely be required.  Perhaps it’s time the general public gets a good bellyful of what is done to children in this state, what social workers, lawyers, judges and GALs deal with on a daily basis.  Maybe then we would finally start seeing a push to put some real teeth in our child protection laws and get children out of these homes before the damage becomes permanent.