New juvenile court guidelines adopted
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The state Supreme Court yesterday adopted new guidelines for juvenile court dependency hearings that standardize day-to-day operations. The rules are intended to provide parents, children, child advocates and attorneys with a map to navigate through court proceedings.
"There were laws governing every other jurisdiction of the courts in Pennsylvania, but there were no rules whatsovever governing any aspect of the juvenile court's jurisdiction. There was serious resistance to that," said University of Pittsburgh Law School Professor F. Barry McCarthy. Mr. McCarthy chaired a committee that studied juvenile procedures across the state and made recommendations to the court.
The 10-member Juvenile Court Procedural Rules Committee, which included judges, attorneys and child advocates, began its work in 2001, surveying county solicitors, caseworkers, judges and lawyers who work with children and parents. The committee reviewed long-established juvenile dependency procedures in several states, including Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey and California.
The group then drafted rules, took public comment and submitted a proposal to the Supreme Court. After making some revisions, the justices released the final guidelines, which take effect Feb. 1.
"The Supreme Court has finally brought juvenile courts into the 20th century if not the 21st," Mr. McCarthy said.
The 120-page guidebook released yesterday sets out a number of "how-tos," including:
How to request access to legal records.
How the court should notify parents, children and their representatives about court dates.
How to gauge when attorneys should enter the process and when they may terminate their representation of juvenile dependency clients.
How and when lawyers must provide certain documents during the discovery phase.
Currently, juvenile hearings tend to be informal and basic safeguards can get overlooked, committee members said.
"We have 67 counties. We found on some issues there are 67 ways of doing things," said Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates, who served on the advisory panel with Mr. McCarthy.
The rules set forth uniform courtroom procedures. For example, every proceeding must be recorded so that anyone involved has the ability to get transcribed copies if needed.
The guidelines also clarify procedures for very specific situations that had not been handled uniformly throughout the state.
Among the most significant: If a party wants to recommend that a child be permanently removed from the home and put up for adoption,a judge must decide whether an adoption hearing is appropriate. Currently, that decision can be made by a hearing officer in some counties.
The committee's first task was to develop guidelines for juvenile delinquency hearings, which the Supreme Court reviewed, revised and implemented in 2005. The next undertaking was to hammer out rules for dependency court, which came together faster because the panel applied some of the delinquency court rules.
Family Court Administrative Judge Kim Berkeley Clark said Allegheny County and many others are already following the steps outlined in the new dependency hearing rules.
"I don't think the dependency rules will cause a lot of problems," Mr. McCarthy said. "But anything new causes a little bit of anxiety at the beginning."
Visit www.aopc.org/Index/SupCtCmtes/juvct/395juvctrule.pdf to review the new guidelines.
First Published August 22, 2006 12:00 am