News

Judge Hopes to Expand Drug Court for Moms

Shelby County Drug Court Judge Tim Dwyer sees the good his court is doing and wants to expand it. There are 13 mothers in the program, affecting 45 children, but he would like to be able to offer the services to 30 women. The special drug court pairs Dwyer up with the district attorney's office, juvenile court and Memphis police. If a mother gives birth to a baby addicted to drugs, she's now charged with reckless endangerment. Her only options are jail time or the treatment program. "We've got a long way to go," Dwyer says, "but at least were doing something." ABC24.com has the story

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Judge Orders DCS to Release Child Death Records

Davidson County Chancery Court Judge Carol McCoy this week ordered the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) to release the forms it fills out when a child dies in its care. Each form provides information about the child’s cause of death, the department’s prior involvement, and prior services provided to the child. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed Dec. 19, 2012, by The Tennessean and a coalition of a dozen other news organizations. Responding to the court, Gov. Bill Haslam said the state would provide the records, reports The Tennessean. In related news, officials announced yesterday they had discovered nine more cases of children who died during the past two years while under the supervision of DCS. The News Sentinel has more on that story.

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Court Rules Against Sex Offender Facebook Ban

A federal appeals court ruled today that an Indiana law that bans registered sex offenders from accessing Facebook and other social networking sites that can be accessed by children is unconstitutional, the Memphis Commercial Appeals reports. The 7th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in Chicago overturned U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt’s June decision, saying the “blanket ban” was too broad and didn’t protect children.” Federal judges have barred similar laws in other states.

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Court to Consider Rape Accomplice Law

Under Tennessee law, a victim of statutory rape can be considered an accomplice in the crime, but the state Supreme Court will review a case that could overturn that interpretation, reports The Tennessean. The case involves a 14-year-old girl from Arkansas and a Memphis man, who was convicted of aggravated statutory rape in 2010. Based on a decision from 1895, women in statutory rape cases may be considered accomplices if no “evidence of force” is found. That fact alone is disturbing, but also raises the question of whether evidence beyond the woman’s testimony is necessary to convict the defendant. Observers suggest the court likely will use the case to narrow the definition of “accomplice” to exclude victims of sex crimes.

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Commissioners Seek Legal Opinions on Juvenile Settlement

Shelby County commissioners met this week to air criticisms with a settlement agreement reached between the county Juvenile Court and the U.S. Department of Justice several weeks ago. The commission is questioning whether the agreement can be enacted without its input and approval. Commission chairman Mike Ritz has requested an opinion from the county attorney on that issue. Another commissioner, Terry Roland, has asked the Tennessee attorney general for a ruling as well. Read the latest in the Memphis Commercial Appeal

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Caucus Chair Calls for Bipartisan Meeting on DCS

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner sent letters today to Gov. Bill Haslam, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey requesting a joint Government Operations Committee meeting to investigate the Department of Children’s Services' (DCS) refusal to release records on child deaths. He also requested an investigation into reports that DCS has returned children to homes where there is evidence of abuse, according to The Tennessean. Turner’s request comes two days after a hearing in Davidson County Chancery Court on a lawsuit brought by The Tennessean and other media outlets around the state. News also came out today that DCS fired two top staffers on Tuesday whose duties at the agency included reviewing the deaths of children.

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Judge to Review DCS Records

Chancellor Carol McCoy said today in court that she will review a sample of records of children who died after being brought to the attention of the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) in order to determine whether the agency is required to release child fatality records. McCoy presides over the lawsuit brought by the Tennessean and a coalition of other news organizations against DCS for allegedly violating the Tennessee Public Records Act by declining to disclose the records of about 30 children who died in the first half of 2012 while under the agency’s supervision.

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Report: Child Protection Improvements Needed

According to the 2012 Annual Report by the Second Look Commission, investigations into severe child abuse cases were left incomplete and failed to address the complicated needs of the family. The 23-page report details eight areas in which Tennessee can improve the protection of children including providing more training for child abuse investigators, Department of Children’s Services (DCS) caseworkers, mental health providers and law enforcement.

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Swafford Talks About Experience as Juvenile Judge

A profile of Bradley County Juvenile Court Judge Daniel Swafford in today’s Cleveland Daily Banner sheds light on his background, the type of situations he faces while sitting on the bench and how he deals with difficult issues such as neglected or abused children and methamphetamine abuse. He touts the innovative ideas the county has adopted, including a juvenile drug court – one of just a few in the state – and a program that uses high school coaches to talk to kids in detention. Reflecting on his service, Swafford says, “I’m blessed to have this job, and I give my best effort every day. [But] I go home sometimes and worry and cry about the stuff I have to deal with. We try to save every family, but some families can’t do it, and you’ve got to move on.”

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Courthouse Dogs Program Helps Children in Court

The Child Advocacy Center of Charlotte and the Courthouse Dogs Foundation recently joined together with Humphreys County court officials to discuss a new program in Waverly. Under the new program, Courthouse Dogs would assist and comfort sexually abused children while they go through forensic interviews and testify in court. The dogs are trained by organizations that are members of Assistance Dogs International. Experts say the dogs play two key roles in the courtroom -- making victims feel safe and less anxious, and reducing stress levels. Learn more from the Leaf Chronicle

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Editorial: Juvenile Court Deal Comes with Price Tag

Compliance with an agreement reached between the U.S Department of Justice (DOJ) and Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court last week is "well worth" the estimated cost the county government, the Memphis Flyer argues in an editorial today. However, the paper warns that the price tag of $4.5 to $6.5 million will strain the already financially strapped county government, and that Shelby County Mayor Mark Lutrell's bid for emergency funding from the state will exacerbate the existing shaky relationship he has with the county commission.

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Russia Passes Ban on U.S. Adoptions

Lawmakers in Moscow effectively banned Americans from adopting Russian children by passing a bill that imposes a series of sanctions on U.S. interests, WCYB News reports. The move is widely seen as retaliation against the Magnitsky Act, which President Obama signed on Dec. 14. That law imposes U.S. travel and financial restrictions on human rights abusers in Russia. Russia is one of the top countries of origin for international adoptions in the United States, behind only China, with more than 60,000 Russian children joining American families in the past 20 years.

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Suit Demands DCS Release Public Records

The Tennessean and a coalition of the state’s newspapers, television stations and other media organizations filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Davidson County Chancery Court against the Department of Children’s Services (DCS), alleging the agency is violating the law by refusing to make public the records of children who died after being brought to the agency for attention. According to Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis attorney Robb Harvey, who represents the Tennessean, this is the largest coalition of Tennessee media organizations in terms of number, geographic scope, readership and viewership ever to file a public records lawsuit.

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Deal Reached to Reform Shelby Co. Juvenile System

An agreement to overhaul Shelby County Juvenile Court, expected to cost $4.5 million to $6.5 million, was finalized Monday between court and county officials and the U.S. Department of Justice, The Commercial Appeal reports. The plan, officially announced today, addresses problems such as the disparate treatment of black youths, the high number of youth transferred to adult court, and due process rights violations. If the county doesn't carry out the reforms, federal officials have said they likely would file suit to force changes. While many Memphis officials applauded the plan, members of the Shelby County Commission were surprised by the deal saying they were not asked to weigh in on the agreement. The commission chair reportedly has asked the county attorney for a legal opinion as to whether the mayor has authority to make the agreement without commission approval.

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Task Force Working to Improve Child Protection Efforts

A task force on child protection wants more consistency in how reports of abuse are investigated and how decisions about criminal charges are made in the state. The group, comprised of Department of Children's Services (DCS) officials, doctors, law enforcement, attorneys and child advocates, is set to release a draft of its findings next month, Knoxnews.com says. In its report, the task force is expected to recommend that investigative teams train together; that communication be improved between DCS, law enforcement and community service agencies; and that additional funding be provided to hire more caseworkers and increase current caseworkers’ salaries.

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Williamson County to Swear in First Juvenile Court Judge

Sharon E. Guffee will be sworn in next Wednesday as Williamson County’s first Juvenile Court Judge, the Williamson Herald reports. In June, the Williamson County Commission voted unanimously to appoint Guffee to the position effective Jan. 1, 2013. Guffee is a graduate of the Nashville School of Law and previously worked as an Assistant District Attorney for the 21st Judicial Districts and in private practice.

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Rigsby Sworn in as New Juvenile Magistrate

Melinda Rigsby was sworn in this week as a new magistrate at Davidson County Juvenile Court, filling the vacancy created by the appointment of Sophia Brown Crawford as judge. Rigsby has worked as an assistant District Attorney since 1995 at Juvenile Court and later General Sessions Court. Read more at TN Courts.

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U.S. Joins International Effort Against Pedophilia

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and European Union Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmstrom will launch a global alliance targeting online child sexual abuse this week. Officials from 27 EU member nations and 22 other countries will gather for a conference tomorrow in Brussels to being laying the foundation for the effort. The participating nations are making a commitment to care for victims, enhance efforts to prosecute offenders, increase children's awareness of online risks and reduce the availability of child abuse material online. WATE.com has this AP story

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Truancy Reforms Urged in Tennessee

The University of Tennessee College of Law’s Education Law Practicum has examined truancy laws, data and enforcement across the state for the past four years. According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, their work has revealed an increase in truancy numbers and an inconsistent system of enforcement among school districts. The law school group is advocating for local programs that involve parents, alternative education programming, legal representation for every juvenile offender, and a greater focus among educators as to what causes students to miss school. They also are urging the state to recognize bullying, mental and chronic health issues, lack of transportation and homelessness as valid reasons for absences.

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Group Launches Effort to Reduce Minority Youth Arrests

The Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative kicked off last week in Memphis. The organization is working with local officials to find ways to reduce the high rate of minority youths arrested and jailed each year. The initiative's management team has completed an assessment analyzing jail data and talking with those who work with troubled youth, including judges, jail and probation staff, law enforcement and school staff. It now will seek to repair what it says is a disconnect between police, school staff and court officials. ABC24.com reports

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Rutherford Juvenile Center Gets Federal Grant

The Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center has received a $131,000 federal grant to enhance educational programming, career counseling, drug and alcohol prevention and parenting classes. "We are so excited to be approved for this grant," Juvenile Judge Donna Scott Davenport told the Murfreesboro Post. Officials said the center plans to use the money to purchase technological equipment and software, establish a new library and implement a new life management curriculum.

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Children's Justice Conference Held in Nashville

Over 700 child abuse professionals gathered in Nashville over the last few days to shed light on child abuse, News Channel 5 reports. The Connecting for Children's Justice Conference, held by the Tennessee Chapter of Children's Advocacy Centers, provided professionals a chance to receive training, support and leadership opportunities. Tennessee First Lady Crissy Haslam also spoke at the event. Learn more about the conference

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CASA Nashville Hires New Development Director

CASA Nashville has hired Patience Long, former manager of development for a large Illinois hospital chain, as its new development director. As manager of major gifts and the annual fund for Advocate BroMenn Medical Center, Long orchestrated a $10 million capital campaign, soliciting donations from individuals and corporations. She also previously was director of fundraising and special events for Gilda’s Club, a nonprofit cancer support group. Learn more about Tennessee CASA and its Nashville program here.

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Lawyer Who Morphed Images as Exhibit in Child Porn Trial Must Pay Damages

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a $300,000 award against an Ohio lawyer, rejecting arguments that he had a First Amendment right to morph stock photos into child pornography as part of a defense trial exhibit and that no one was harmed by his doing so, the ABA Journal reports. Dean Boland was trying to show that overbroad laws against child pornography could entrap a defendant who didn't know whether the images were real or fake. But he wound up in trouble himself.

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Suspension Lifted for Texas Judge Filmed Beating Daughter

The Texas Supreme Court has lifted the suspension of Aransas County Court-at-Law Judge William Adams, who was shown on video beating his then-16-year-old daughter with a belt for illegally downloading music. Adam’s older daughter uploaded the video to Youtube last year, but since the video was from 2004, the Aransas County district attorney said too much time has passed to bring criminal charges. News Channel 9 has the story.

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