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Professor wins timely justice for children
in emergency custody cases
May 10, 1999
ne of the oldest maxims is that justice delayed is justice denied.
In 1998, the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Connecticut School of Law convinced the Connecticut Supreme Court to apply that maxim to the state's child welfare system. Moreover, the state's highest court established the principle that courts can examine their own operations and repair their flaws.
The case of Pamela B. v. Ment involved a mother whose 19-month-old son was taken away from her by the state's Department of Children and Families in August 1995 on an allegation of neglect. Three days later, DCF asked the Superior Court for Juvenile Matters in Hartford for an order of temporary custody, which the court granted. State law required that a hearing on the order be held within 10 days.
When Pamela B. arrived at court with her attorney to contest the order. "The judge said that he was sympathetic, but unfortunately he was booked for the next six months, so we couldn't have that hearing for another six months," says Paul Chill, clinical professor of law at the law school and a supervising attorney for the Civil Rights Clinic. "This was a clear denial of due process."
The juvenile court's backlog of cases was prompted by a flood of orders of temporary custody in which DCF, in the aftermath of several well publicized child abuse cases, took emergency custody of children believed to be endangered or neglected.
In the case of Pamela B., the allegation of neglect came about because she appeared to be ignoring seizures her son had been suffering. There was no evidence of abuse, Chill says, nor was abuse ever alleged. "DCF was resolving every doubt in favor of making sure no one else died on their watch. What people don't understand is it's not that simple. When the governor says to take any kid where there's any possibility they're going to die, that's sounds well and good, but when you translate that into a policy it ignores the fact that if you take an 19-month-old kid away from his mother, you are damaging that kid - seriously."
Six months later you've got a two-year-old child who has spent the last quarter of his life away from his mother," Chill continues. "Beyond that, you've influenced the way a future case is going to go, because the kid is in a foster home, where he's developing new bonds, and now the foster parents would love to adopt this charming little boy and now what do you do? These early decisions are very crucial to the outcome, so we did what all good lawyers learn to do, we sued everybody."
"Everybody" in this instance included then-Chief Court Administrator Aaron Ment, then-DCF Commissioner Linda D'Amario Rossi and Governor John G. Rowland. (Rowland was subsequently dropped as a defendant.) The Civil Rights Clinic sued for injunctive relief, in effect, asking the juvenile courts to clean up their act. Ment, who was represented by the state attorney general's office, argued that trial judges lacked the authority to rearrange the priorities of court administration, so that one group's access to the courts improved at the expense of any other group. Ment also argued that no state trial judge had the power to order their superior (Ment) to administer better.
The state Supreme Court ruled against the defendants on each issue and the Pamela B. case was remanded for trial last spring, Chill says. Meanwhile, a huge new federal initiative, the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, was forcing the state to make many changes. Then the state legislature, due in large part to the Pamela B. case, passed a law that effectively gives a parent a right to a full hearing within three weeks of DCF temporarily taking custody of a child. State lawmakers also eased the juvenile court backlog by authorizing more trial judges.
It was at this point, Chill says, that the Civil Rights Clinic decided to "declare victory" and drop the suit. That outcome led the Connecticut Law Tribune to name Chill one of the 10 "Connecticut lawyers who matter" for 1998, and for the attorney to receive the 1999 Connecticut Law Review Award for Excellence in Legal Scholarship and Service to the Legal Community.
A year later, Chill maintains that the Pamela B. case is a cautionary tale about good intentions gone awry.
"You can't separate people like that," he says, "take kids away from parents, without giving them a chance to fight it."