Task force votes to open divorce, custody cases

By Amy Cherry 2:27pm, October 29, 2013 - Updated 3:22pm, October 29, 2013
WDEL's Amy Cherry talks with advocate Raetta McCall, a public member of the Blue Ribbon Task Force.
A Blue Ribbon Task Force that must decide whether to recommend proceedings be open in Delaware Family Court continues its work in their second meeting this month.

WDEL's Amy Cherry has the latest.

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Members of the public told the task force they feel they've been raped by Delaware's closed Family Court system.

Taking that under advisement, the panel voted to recommend that divorce and child custody proceedings be open to the public.

"At least if they do it as presumed open as compared to presumed closed, we might have a chance of actually getting people into the courtrooms to see what goes on," says public task force member Raetta McCall.

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But presumed open means the judge still has some discretion.

"Ultimately, with all the court cases, the judge has the final decision; it's his courtroom. I don't want any compromise on safety," says task force co-chair Lynn Kokjohn.

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Four task force members voted "No" on opening up child custody cases, citing child welfare and concerns that child psychological reports could become public.

McCall says that argument is a crutch.

"They use the best interest of the child as a catch-all for not being able to do things, and it's a false representation," McCall says, "And I have to wonder whether or not some of the no votes, how often have they been in to see or experience the situation in Family Court."

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Still, McCall was pleased with the results of Tuesday's meeting. Kokjohn agreed, particularly when it comes to the recommendation to open up cases of divorce.

"When you're in there, and the whole intimidation factor, and you want to have a support mechanism, you want to have your friends sitting behind you saying, 'I'm here for you, and you're not alone," she says.

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The task force also found little value in comparing Delaware to surrounding states.

"It's like comparing apples to kumquats," joked Sen. Dave Lawson (R-Marydel).

Citing specifics on Delaware cases was also impossible because the courts are closed.

McCall suggests taking a look at the nation, as a whole.

"In Massachusetts, it's open, and they didn't care if the people had money, prestige, power," she says.

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But the task force undoubtedly has a lot of work left to do before making final recommendations to the General Assembly by February of next year. They're planning at least two more meetings, one each in December and January.

At issue with some of these changes are potential privacy concerns surrounding financial documents.

"In the case of confidential things, then maybe you have to close the courtroom for a certain time or you have to do something in his chamber, but then you come back, and everybody still gets all of the support that they need,” says Kokjohn.

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Rep. Mike Ramone (R-Middle Run Valley) says the task force shouldn't let these kinds of concerns bog them down.

"You can't not do the right thing because we haven't figured out how to make it functional, safe and private," he says.

McCall says there needs to be guidelines for judge's discretion.

"If you say the financial things can get out, then they're going to close it. The ones, the judges and commissioners who do not want it open, they will take that and they will run with it, and they will say 'closed,'" she says.

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To read about WDEL's coverage of the task force's first meetingclick here.

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