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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Ind. Courts - "Judge Nemeth gives his parting words: He pulls no punches about DCS, openness, and how we let our kids down"

Virginia Black of the South Bend Tribune had a very long story/interview Dec. 23rd with St. Joseph County Probate Judge Peter J. Nemeth, whose last day in office was Friday, Dec. 21st. Just a sample:

Nemeth's last day in the office was Friday, as he finished packing his books and mementos and prepared to hand over the reins to Probate Judge-elect Jim Fox.

Nemeth has spent nearly 20 years as a probate judge, ever since Gov. Evan Bayh appointed him in 1993 to fill out his father's term in that seat. He had earlier been South Bend's mayor from 1976 to 1980, a member of the common council and a deputy prosecutor.

The judge has been outspoken on many issues over the years, taking on county officials' attempts to cut his budget, for example, and criticizing state officials for their running of juvenile facilities.

In the past year, he has openly lambasted Indiana's Department of Child Services over the agency's many changes under Gov. Mitch Daniels, and the effects of budget cuts, altered policies and less local control.

Earlier this year, the judge announced his decision to retire from the bench. Now 71, he'll join his son's firm, Nemeth, Sweeney and Masters, working on economic development issues and seeking certification as a mediator of civil cases. * * *

Q: For this community, it seems like the number of reports in this county are still high, CASIE Center says their caseload has gone up ever since Tramelle Sturgis died.

I think the DCS has responded because of what happened, because of the fury of the press, as well as the folks, and that's a good thing. But why weren't they doing that all along?

Q: People didn't know about a lot of the changes before.

And that's the other thing, everything's confidential, so nobody really knows what's going on. I have said for years that I think the days of confidentiality should be gone.

I don't understand the reason for maintaining confidentiality in juvenile cases. Certainly in paternities, the only difference from a divorce is that there's no property settlements in paternities, divorces are public. Why shouldn't paternities be public? The days of the shotgun wedding and the embarrassment and so forth when 40 percent of the kids are born out of wedlock, I don't know that that justifies maintaining that confidentiality anymore.

And certainly with CHINS cases (when children are deemed wards of the state because of abuse or neglect allegations), I think if citizens knew what was going on in their community, they might be able to respond much better and prevent some of these problems that reach a tragic end. Certainly, I think it would be after a probable cause hearing; if probable cause doesn't exist, it would remain confidential. ...

I will say that once things become public, then the press loses interest. The press is generally more interested when something's confidential, and they want to know what's going on. You open it up, and after a time, then people become numb or immune, whatever. But I still think it would be a good thing. ...

I think the theory was to prevent the child from suffering some stigma, from peers being cruel, but I kind of think in our present-day society we've gone way beyond that point. I don't think the objections are as valid as they may have been 50 years ago.

Q: I've sat in on a couple of hearings this year that were related to CHINS cases that were in your courtroom. I had to get your permission, but DCS objected pretty stringently under the confidentiality clause. ... With the Sturgis phone call, when we sought that, we believed that we might not hear anything that revealed anything about how that case unfolded or how it might have been prevented. As it turned out, we think it showed a great deal about maybe where there were some flaws in the system.

I think that tells you something: When DCS opposes the release on confidentiality, that's supposed to protect the children and families, not DCS. But yet DCS is the one that appears to be taking advantage of that.

Q: We've never talked about the circumstances of that phone call. We had our day in court, and made our argument, and you ordered it released. But you knew they would be unhappy, and it wasn't redacted (confidential information had not been electronically removed from the recording, although The Tribune edited it greatly to protect the identity of the caller and others named in the call). There was information there I guess you trusted us to use our judgment with, but can you talk about what your thinking was? You thought it was an important record for the community to hear, or -- ?

I think it was. I think frankly that the way the state set up DCS, they're virtually omnipotent, there's no check on them. Courts have been the check for years, but basically we were reduced to almost a subsidiary. You can't place a child anywhere without their consent, you can't do what's in the best interest of the child because they don't agree to it. ...

That's crazy, that a bureaucrat is going to tell me how to decide a case. It's not a good thing.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on December 26, 2012 08:52 AM
Posted to Indiana Courts