By Sarah Jane Tribble, The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Judges in Cuyahoga County's Juvenile Court want someone else to make the final decision for removing children from their homes during emergencies -- in part because telephone hearings disrupt the magistrates' schedules and personal lives.
The court's magistrates and judges also want to be relieved of the duty because they feel that many of the calls for emergency hearings and the resulting court orders are "not true emergencies," according to a memorandum filed last month by the children and family services unit of the county prosecutor's office.
But the controversial proposal disregards an Ohio Supreme Court recommendation and has as made for some unlikely partnerships. The prosecutor and public defender's office, often courtroom adversaries, have joined the county Children and Family Services agency in opposing the move.
The change would mean that a magistrate or judge would not be the deciding party. Instead, they would likely appoint the social worker as a servant of the justice system to make the final decision.
The juvenile court administrators declined requests for interviewers, though confirmed in an email Tuesday that they are reviewing how they handle emergency custody cases.
"We look forward to continue to seek solutions that are in the best interest of the children of Cuyahoga County," the email stated.
The prosecutor's memo -- quoting from an internal juvenile court memo written in November -- notes that the magistrates complained that such calls for emergency telephone hearings were "very disruptive" to their daily dockets and personal lives.
In 2011, there were 617 cases that required the magistrates in Juvenile Court to hold an emergency telephone hearing, and then issue a court order for the removal of a child, according the prosecutor's office.
Emergency cases typically involve children who are deemed to be in immediate threat or danger of being harmed. One common case is when neighbors report children who have been left home alone.
Under the current system, a social worker quickly investigates such cases, often visiting the home and interviewing relatives or neighbors. Then, a report is given to others at children and family services. Once the division is in agreement, social workers consult the prosecutor's office and call a juvenile court magistrate for an out-of-court hearing. If the magistrate agrees, a court order is issued over the phone. All of this can happen within a few hours.
In only three of the 617 cases last year did a magistrate go against the opinions of the social worker and prosecutor and refuse a court order, said Pat Rideout, administrator of children and family services.
Still, having an impartial representative of the court as the final decider in such emergencies is crucial, Rideout said.
"This is an enormous intrusion on a family and a parent's rights and you simply don't do that lightly," Rideout said. "The court's role is to review what we do. ... I very much want the court's review and approval."
Rideout, who before taking the helm of the agency last year worked in the juvenile court system as an attorney and magistrate, said Cuyahoga County's court had previously appointed social workers to be officers of the court and gave them the authority to remove children from their homes.
But the Ohio Supreme Court reviewed Cuyahoga County's juvenile justice system in 2004 and strongly urged against the practice. While the practice "appears to be legal," the higher court wrote, it is "not a best practice and may well be a conflict of interest."
Instead, the high court said, children and their parents should have an in-court hearing. If that is not possible, the second choice would be a hearing by telephone, which is what is practiced now.
The high court wrote "ex parte hearings and telephonic orders ensure procedural protections at the earliest possible point in the process."
Cuyahoga County's juvenile court switched to the recommended practice within a few of years of the published report, though in a 2005 response to the recommendations the administration hinted at a concern about the increased caseload telephone hearings might cause.
The letter, dated from July 2005, said the court would review the suggestion and "may conclude there is a need to increase the caseload of the Administrative Judge's Magistrates."
Stephen Rubin, a national court consultant and past president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, said "it's not that complicated" to figure out a solution for busy dockets.
"The judges need to change the way they do business," Rubin said. "They need to dedicate a different judge every day to be the on-call judge."
It is unclear how the judges and magistrates in Cuyahoga County's juvenile court handle emergency hearings because they did not provide an interview. Rubin said the county's juvenile court system had once participated in the national council's model court program, which establishes guidelines for handling cases. But the court dropped out of the program -- a move that is unusual, he said.
"The real focus of the resource guidelines is getting the families the help they need and not taking the kids into care unless it's absolutely necessary," Rubin said.
For Yvonne Billingsley, an assistant prosecutor and supervisor of the children and family services unit in the prosecutor's office for more than 16 years, an in-court hearing would be ideal for giving both the children and family ample opportunity to make their case. But the time and resources in-court hearings take make them unlikely.
A telephone hearing, with or without parental involvement, is the next choice and allows the magistrate to ask a "handful of critical questions" of the social worker to make a final decision.
The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges offers guidelines saying that the unplanned removal of a child is always traumatic and that the court must make as careful and considered a decision as possible during an emergency. It also states that the courts must provide protection for parents as well.
In his March 21 letter to the Juvenile Court Judges, Cuyahoga County Public Defender Sam Amata, who supervises the juvenile division, argues that the telephone hearings should continue, stating that having a social worker make the decision would be "shirking this obvious judicial responsibility."