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A mother's fight to help her child


To Barbara Brooks, it seems obvious: Her 16-year-old son is having troubles, both personally and with the law, and it's her duty as a mother to do all she can to help.

The frustrating thing is, she's not entirely sure what's wrong with him.

But even more frustrating to her is this: Maryland's Department of Juvenile Justice has a detailed assessment that shows the teen has mental health problems, but officials refuse to release his medical records to her.

There are no allegations that Brooks has abused her son and no contention that turning over the records would harm him. Nevertheless, the department has not only refused to hand over details of his ailments, it has gone to court to prevent her from obtaining the records.

"Everything I ask for, the answer's 'No,'" Brooks said this week in an interview in her apartment in Northwest Baltimore. "I don't understand it. It makes no logical sense. I'm his mother, trying to help him."

The department says it is only following the law. But it has moved aggressively enough to keep the records from Brooks that she suspects officials have their own interests in mind in denying her information on her son's mental state.

Treatment sought

She believes the department has refused to turn over the records because it has not treated him properly.

Her son, she said, is one of those children whose treatment advocates have complained about for years: diagnosed as needing mental health help, but locked away with little or nothing in the way of treatment.

Juvenile justice officials deny that claim.

They say they have refused to release the records in accordance with Section 3-828 of the Annotated Code of Maryland. It states that parents who request access to juvenile records must demonstrate "good cause" to obtain them.

That means, for example, that if a juvenile is arrested, given a mental health screening and found to be mentally ill, parents have no automatic right to the records that document this.

Instead, they must appear before a judge and argue they have good cause to obtain the records. Then the judge decides.

Confidentiality at issue

"The statute is designed to protect the child's confidentiality, and that's the bottom line for us on this matter," said Bob Kannenberg, spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Justice. "The department agrees with the statute that the final decision is up to the court."

Cases in which parents demand the records of their children are rare, Kannenberg said, and the department's attorneys evaluate them on a case-by-case basis before taking a stance before the judge.

In this case, the juvenile justice agency did not merely point Brooks to a judge to let him decide. The agency, which handles 55,000 juveniles a year and has long bemoaned the lack of parental involvement in many of those cases, has done everything it can to keep Brooks from the records.

When Brooks showed up in the courtroom of Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch this week to ask for the records, an attorney for the juvenile justice agency also was there. He argued that the judge should deny the mother her son's juvenile records not because she was an abuser or could hurt his chances at being rehabilitated, but because she did not meet the "good cause" provision in the law.

Being a mother, he argued, is not in itself good cause to look at a juvenile's record.

The juvenile justice agency's attorney, John Shavers, said he cannot comment on the case because of confidentiality rules.

But attorney Thomas Saunders, who was in juvenile court to represent the interests of the child - and not the mother - had no objection to her seeing the records.

"I had no reason to object," he said in an interview.

Agreement reached

Judge Welch ultimately ruled against Brooks, denying her the records.

But he says that he did so only because he understood that the juvenile justice agency and Brooks had reached an agreement resolving the issue and that the case never reached the point where he had to decide whether the mother showed good cause.

The agreement, according to the judge: The mother would give up her quest for the records, and the department would get her son mental health treatment.

The department is obligated by law to provide such treatment to juveniles in need, but even officials at the agency have conceded that many teens never receive such services.

Originally arrested on charges of possessing one marijuana cigarette, Brooks' son has also faced a theft charge. He is currently being held on a probation violation for not reporting to the department and for leaving home for days at a time.

He is not among the worst-behaved juveniles the state has to deal with. But Brooks is concerned that he is headed down a dangerous path, and she's convinced that her efforts to right him have failed because of his mental health issues.

After the hearing before Judge Welch, he was moved to Mountain Manor, a Baltimore drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility, where he'll stay until he can be placed in a mental health program.

Suspicions raised

Susan Leviton, a professor at the University of Maryland Law School and the head of its Children's Law Clinic, said there are situations when parents should be denied access to files, such as when they have abused or neglected a child. None of those elements is part of the Brooks case.

Leviton said the mother's contention that the agency is trying to withhold evidence of mishandling her son's case and mental health assessments looks valid. At a minimum, it raises suspicions.

"Sometimes I don't know what they're thinking over there," Leviton said. "They keep saying they're an agency that is supposed to serve kids - and you can't serve kids without working with their families.

"The only reason I can think that they wouldn't want this woman to see the files is there are assessments in there, and we all know that assessments of kids in that agency have nothing to do with how they're ultimately treated."

As for Brooks, she says she will continue to fight for her son. He is no angel, she is quick to acknowledge. After all, she points out, she was the one who notified state officials when he violated terms of his probation.

She still wants his records. She acknowledges the deal she made to get her son mental health treatment but says she agreed only to postpone the fight until he was placed in the proper facility.

"They can say 'No' all they want," she said. "I'm not going away."

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