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Panel stymied by controversy over video


A seven-month-old panel set up to hear complaints from parents against the county-run Department of Human Services has been seriously stymied by continued controversy over the way citizens' complaints are handled.

Set up last year after raucous debate between critics of the county agency and various government officials, the Citizen Review Panel is in a standoff with several complainants over whether or not the board's proceedings can be recorded on video.

Those who have attended panel hearings say it's imperative that there be an accurate public record of the meetings. "How can there be any accountability if no one's taking notes, if no one is recording these sessions," said E.L. Ross, who has sat in as an advocate for others before the panel and who also has a pending complaint against DHS.

The panel started its work in February with an immediate backlog of 10 cases. But so far, it's only heard two cases, even though it was scheduled to meet every other week for more than three months.

Some hearings were postponed due to an inability to get a five-person quorum of the nine-person, volunteer body, said Jane Fredman, a lawyer for the city's utility company who serves as the board's president.

Other cases have been delayed because complainants wanted more time to review documents in their files before presenting their cases, she added. (Critics say that DHS has stonewalled requests by complainants to get copies of their files prior to their hearing date -- a charge DHS officials deny).

But Fredman conceded the slow start is also largely due to the panel's controversial no-taping policy, which caused the panel to indefinitely postpone several hearings after complainants refused to pack up their video cameras.

"These complaints are a confidential matter," she said. "We don't know how that tape might be used in future. Also, the Board of County Commissioners did not approve the grievance process to include any taping, video or otherwise."

Critics of DHS such as Suzanne Shell, who led last year's highly contentious attack against DHS, say they want the video access, or some other reliable recording process, because state law allows law enforcement agencies to use anything complainants say in the hearings in any future legal hearings.

But the battle for video access belies a far deeper rift between the panel and at least some of the citizens it was designed to empower. DHS critics say they want to video the proceedings so they can document what they say is the panel's bias against parents -- a claim DHS officials and Fredman strenuously deny.

"I felt like I was on trial all over again," said Sanica Swisher, one of the two parents to have their cases heard by the panel so far. Among other things, the 34-year-old mother of seven alleges she was treated unfairly by a DHS caseworker after she objected to a state civil rights agency that the social worker had called her "poor, stupid and black."

Swisher, who has lost all seven of her children to foster care in part due to minor criminal charges, also complained she had less time to present her side of the story during her hearing than did DHS caseworkers. She was also prohibited by panel policy from having an advocate or attorney speak on her behalf. "It's like they were investigating me again, not the actions of DHS," she said.

Lloyd Malone, the director of children and family services for the county agency, would not comment on the specifics of any cases before the panel. But he said the hearings have been fair, giving equal time to all parties. "My impression is that [the] panel has gone above and beyond to be fair and deferential, flexible and reasonable in dealing with these complaints," he said.

But critics charge the process is stacked. "These people are emotionally and psychologically devastated," said Ross, who works with the recently formed support group called the Family Solidarity Coalition. "To not allow them to have an advocate who can articulate and express their grievances undermines their case, and their Constitutional rights."

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