Press one of the expand buttons to see the full text of an article. Later press collapse to revert to the original form. The buttons below expand or collapse all articles.
Judges Call Social Workers
July 20, 2010 permalink
When Massachusetts judges had to make a decision in a child custody case, they filled themselves in with an off-the-record call to the state Department of Children and Families. The parents never knew about the call and could not respond to errors in the information provided. An appellate court has now outlawed the practice.
Court ruling regarding child-custody cases in Massachusetts hailed as victory for parents
SPRINGFIELD – A recent decision by the state’s highest court in a case which challenged practices used in child-custody cases in Hampden Probate Court is a victory for parents, says an administrator of a regional legal services agency.
The state Supreme Judicial Court ruled that certain practices (“protocols”) relied upon by family court judges in Hampden Probate Court in child-related cases, such as those involving temporary visitation and custody, violated the due process rights of parents in those cases, according to Colleen Sullivan, managing attorney for Western Massachusetts Legal Services.
In 2006, Western Massachusetts Legal Services brought a lawsuit challenging the protocols which permitted judges to gather information in cases where there was state Department of Children and Families involvement. The practices included having court personnel simply call the state agency and get an oral summary of information in a file, without the parents’ knowledge of what information was being transmitted, Sullivan said.
The practice allowed for the possibility of incomplete, inaccurate or unreliable information being given to the judge, who would then rely in part on such information to make decisions on issues such as temporary visitation, guardianship or custody, she said.
Sullivan said Western Massachusetts Legal Services has always recognized that Probate Court judges grapple with very difficult issues and are guided by the best interests of the child.
But Western Massachusetts Legal Services also recognized that the protocols left room for serious errors in important decisions about family life, she said.
The Supreme Court acknowledged the difficulties that judges face in making such determinations, but found that the constitutional due process protections of parents here to have only complete, reliable and accurate information be considered by judges is paramount, Sullivan said.
The court ruled that “in the interests of justice, we exercise our broad discretion” to review the current protocols, and concluded that their use violates the due process rights of affected litigants.
The protocols can no longer be used, but the Probate Court can draft new ones that the Supreme Judicial Court’s Rules Committee will review.
Source: The Republican