Handling of Cleveland-area custody cases reviewed

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CLEVELAND (AP) -- County juvenile court magistrates in Cleveland want to hand over the responsibility of deciding when children must be removed from their homes in emergencies, a change that is opposed by the prosecutor and public defender and would most likely leave social workers to make the call.

A memo from the children and family services division of the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office said judges find the emergency telephone hearings disruptive to their work and personal lives and feel the situations often aren't true emergencies, The Plain Dealer reported (http://bit.ly/HgDtVT ) on Wednesday.

Juvenile court administrators said in an email that the handling of the emergency custody cases is being reviewed and that they're looking to serve the best interest of the county's children, the newspaper said.

The county Children and Family Services agency also opposes transferring the responsibility from judges to someone else. Doing so could go against a recommendation from the state Supreme Court, which in 2004 urged against having social workers make decisions, saying it could be a conflict of interest.

Cuyahoga County previously appointed social workers as court officers with the power to remove children from their homes, said Pat Rideout, administrator of children and family services. The county changed that practice after the Supreme Court's recommendation.

"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."

The high court said children and parents involved in such cases should have hearings in court when possible, with the next best alternative being telephone hearings.

Last year, there were 617 cases with emergency telephone hearings about potential court orders to remove children. A magistrate refused a court order, going against social workers' and prosecutors' opinions, in only three of those cases, Rideout said.

The cases often involve children perceived as being at risk of immediate harm, such as when a neighbor reports a child being left home alone. Currently, that would lead to an investigation by a social worker and, if necessary, a consultation with the prosecutor's office and a phone call to a juvenile court magistrate for a hearing on a court order. The process can happen quickly, taking only a few hours, the newspaper reported.

Guidelines from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges suggest that courts carefully consider the decision in agreeing to the unplanned removal of a child while also providing protection for parents.

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Information from: The Plain Dealer, http://www.cleveland.com