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Social Worker Jailed

January 6, 2006 permalink

A Kentucky judge has jailed a social worker for contempt. This is an indication of waning respect for social workers.



Social worker is jailed by judge

Contempt charge sparks concerns

A Jefferson County social worker was jailed for 30 hours for contempt of court last week after she tried to persuade a juvenile judge not to release a girl who has a troubled history.

Tricia Mack, 33, a social worker for nine years with the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said she was stunned when Jefferson District Judge Michelle Stengel called her forward after the Dec. 29 hearing and ordered her jailed.

"I felt like I was just advocating on behalf of the child," Mack said yesterday.

"I've never been arrested. To be placed in jail in the process of doing your job -- that's even worse."

Stengel declined to comment yesterday, saying the case is in juvenile court where proceedings are confidential. She also described as confidential the separate portion where she sent Mack to jail after everyone else had left the courtroom.

"It's a closed proceeding," she said. "I can't talk about what happened."

In a tape of the hearing that Mack provided to The Courier-Journal, she attempts to tell the judge that the cabinet doesn't have a safe place to house the girl, who has a criminal history that includes drug use and fighting and has run away repeatedly. The girl was in court for a routine review of her case and was scheduled to be released from detention.

"She's a high AWOL risk," Mack said. "She's shown that time and time again."

But Stengel said she had no legal grounds to hold the girl and expressed frustration that the cabinet can't find appropriate placements for children committed to it, initially suggesting that she might hold the cabinet itself in contempt.

"They should have found a placement by today," Stengel said. "It's as simple as that."

Stengel sentenced Mack to 30 days in jail, but suspended 29 days of the sentence -- which she could reinstate if she finds any other problems with Mack's behavior.

Mack stayed in jail from around 1 p.m. Thursday to about 7 p.m. Friday.

Mack said the girl is in a residential center.

'It has scared me'

Mack's jailing came just before local youth advocates released a survey Thursday that found that social workers across the state are burned out and worried about lack of resources and support from the cabinet.

"This is certainly no confidence builder," said David Richart, director of the National Institute on Children, Youth and Families and author of the report.

Mack's case has outraged local social workers, who said it's the job of such employees to present information about children to judges. As a result, supervisors have directed Jefferson County social workers not to appear in juvenile court without a supervisor for back-up.

"We don't know what to do," said Nelson Knight, the assistant administrator for child welfare in Jefferson County. "We feel like we need to be there to support our kids, but if we can't talk, we can't support our kids."

Tom Emberton, commissioner for social services, said he is looking into the matter but wants to assure employees of his support. "My intention is to make sure we are accessible, available and behind them all the way," he said.

But other workers said the incident shows a lack of support from the cabinet, which they said did little to help Mack.

"We're really upset about it," said Patricia Pregliasco, an eight-year social worker in Jefferson County. "We're trying to get some kind of answer from the cabinet about the lack of response that Tricia got."

Angela Simmons, another Jefferson County social worker, said the event has left workers wondering whether the cabinet will back them up.

"It has scared me and a lot of other social workers," she said. "We go to court all the time."

Cabinet has no policy

Cabinet officials said yesterday that they are reviewing how lawyers handled the matter. But they said that a state lawyer called Stengel on Thursday and tried to persuade her to release Mack.

When the judge refused, "there's nothing we can do about that," general counsel David Fleenor said.

Fleenor said the cabinet has no policy on how to represent workers in such situations and said the cabinet did all it could by advising Mack that she was free to hire her own lawyer.

But two local defense lawyers, Thomas Clay and James Green, a former Jefferson District judge, said contempt orders can be appealed immediately to a circuit judge. And in any event, someone accused of contempt is entitled to notice of the charge and is supposed to be given an opportunity to defend herself, they said.

"She has a right to counsel," Clay said. "You can't just say, 'You're in contempt -- take her away.' "

No legal representation

On the tape of the proceeding, Stengel conducts a brief hearing at which Mack is not allowed to speak and then lectures her about her courtroom conduct.

"You don't speak up unless you're asked a question," Stengel tells her.

Then Stengel orders Mack to leave the courtroom, but as Mack walks out, the judge apparently changes her mind and orders the courtroom deputy to "take her into custody."

But first, Stengel admonishes Mack.

"When you walk into this courtroom you need to show the ultimate respect," Stengel said. "Otherwise, you need to find another job."

Mack said yesterday that she isn't sure what she did other than to argue briefly that the girl she represents should not have been released from the Louisville Metro Youth Detention Center, where another judge had ordered her held temporarily. "I've been doing this over nine years, and I've never been disrespectful to a judge," she said.

After Stengel ordered Mack into custody, the social worker said she had to change into an orange jump suit and spend the night in a cell. She was provided a blanket, soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush, but no pillow.

Other inmates were incredulous that a social worker was in custody, she said. "They said, 'Are you serious?' "

Source: Louisville Courier-Journal