Child Safety Issue Troubles Judges Rules Would Require Reporting Suspected Abuse

Article excerpt

TALLAHASSEE -- Justice is supposed to be blind.

But should judges really close their eyes when they read accusations of child abuse in domestic violence cases? Or should they report them to the state for investigation?

What if the accusations are unfounded? And what if the public doubts the impartiality of judges who report allegations of child abuse before hearing the facts?

Those are questions the state Supreme Court is grappling with.

Florida's high court heard oral arguments last week on proposed rules that would require judges to report suspicions of child abuse that cross their desks.

For the most part, the rules wouldn't affect child abuse cases brought to court by the Department of Children and Families since those cases are already known to the department.

But they would affect domestic violence cases, divorce cases and juvenile cases.

The rules were proposed by an advisory committee created by Chief Justice Major Harding last fall after passage of the Kayla McKean Act.

Among other changes to how Florida handles child abuse, the law required judges to make reports of suspected child abuse or face criminal penalties.

There seems to be little debate among judges that the 1999 law violates the doctrine of separation of powers and infringes on the independence of the courts as a co-equal branch of government.

And, in fact, the Legislature backpedaled this spring and dropped the requirement that judges make abuse reports. Gov. Jeb Bush is expected to sign the bill making the change.

But judges, meanwhile, are still very much divided on what they should require of themselves when they learn of child abuse allegations that aren't known to investigators.

The committee that Harding set up has recommended that the high court adopt rules requiring judges to make reports of suspected child abuse. …