Bill would open up child custody

State's secrecy law trumps couple's effort to take care of granddaughter

Posted: Monday, February 14, 2005

When Johnny and Mary McGrew returned to their Anchorage home from a fishing trip in July 1999, their world was turned upside down by the homicide-suicide of their son and the mother of their two grandchildren.

Their son, Calvin McGrew, had broken into the home of his girlfriend, Shila Davis, shot her in the back of the head and then turned the gun on himself. Davis collapsed on top of one of their 3 1/2-month-old twin daughters, smothering her to death and leaving the other orphaned.

The McGrews have spent the past five-and-a-half years and thousands of dollars in court costs trying to get custody of their granddaughter, an effort that has been thwarted repeatedly by the state's privacy laws.

Now, lawmakers in Alaska are taking steps to try to open some proceedings and documents associated with child custody cases.

"The current statute ties our hands and doesn't allow us to say anything," said Marci Kennai, deputy commissioner for the state Office of Children's Services.

"We feel that opening up in a responsible way will make us more accountable to the public and will also improve our image."

The state took custody of the girl the weekend of the shooting, but the McGrews got no information until she had been temporarily placed with a foster family almost a week after the deaths, said Grant Callow, the McGrews' lawyer in Anchorage.

The McGrews asked Callow to intervene with what was then called the state Division of Family and Youth Services. That Friday, almost a week after the deaths, Callow said, he was told by DFYS that the girl's caseworker was off work but would return Monday.

The caseworker, however, had appeared in court that day giving temporary custody to friends of Davis. Callow said the McGrews were not given notice of the hearing and the temporary custody of their granddaughter eventually became permanent.

They've spent over five years in court fighting for custody. Their case went all the way to the Alaska Supreme Court, which sent the case back to Anchorage Superior Court to decide if the state's conduct was wrongful and caused serious emotional distress to the McGrews.

Callow said privacy laws involving child abuse and neglect cases have prevented family members such as the McGrews from getting much information when the state takes custody. He said the laws can do more to shield caseworkers from scrutiny than protect the privacy of children.

Gov. Frank Murkowski and some state lawmakers are working to open court hearings and records involving child-in-need-of-aid cases. Murkowski's bill would open court hearings involving abused children that are currently confidential and makes some confidential files available to the press and public.

House Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, has introduced legislation that goes beyond just opening courts and documents. His bill also would give grandparents the preference for adoption if parental rights are terminated. Parents would have the right to have a six-member jury, rather than a judge, decide if they will lose custody of their children. The proposal also would set standards of duty and care for child abuse caseworkers.

"I'm trying to say the families need to be treated with the utmost respect, the children need to be protected and the government needs to know what its authority is," Coghill said.

The confidentiality laws were created to protect the privacy of neglected and abused children but, according to the governor's transmittal letter from his Senate Bill 84, "... they also have the practical effect of limiting public oversight and understanding of goals and activities of our child protection agencies."

Last year, Sherry and Patrick Kelley, a couple living in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, north of Anchorage, were charged in the abuse of their five adopted children. The grandparents, George and Shirley Long, were charged with assault.

The children were allegedly subjected to repeated abuse. News accounts reported that one child was confined in a box and chained to a tree for days and others were beaten with shovels and pipes and forced to sleep in junk vans, among other allegations.

The high-profile case brought the state children's office under heavy scrutiny last fall. Kennai said it was part of the impetus for the change.

"It's hard to say if this would have come up without a high-profile case or someone saying it's time to change the law," Kennai said.

She said the Legislature attempted to open the court hearings and records in 2000, but the proposal failed over concerns that Alaska could lose federal funds for violating provisions requiring privacy.

Changes to the federal Child Abuse and Prevention Act in early 2004 cleared up the conflict, Kennai said.

Althea Izawa-Hayden, an attorney for the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law in Washington, D.C., said Alaska isn't the only state opening its child abuse cases.

Seventeen states have either partly or fully opened their court hearings to the public since 1997, according to Izawa-Hayden.

"The idea is that when the public eye is on these hearings it forces people to be more accountable and make sure the child's interests are being met," she said.

The bills are House Bill 53 and Senate Bill 84.

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