An attorney who represented parents who have lost custody of their children to Luzerne County Children and Youth Services has asked the state Supreme Court to take jurisdiction over the county’s dependency court based on numerous abuses he alleges are being committed by caseworkers and others involved with the court system.
Attorney James Hayward, whose license is now under suspension, said he filed a King’s Bench petition with the Supreme Court on Feb. 18, one day before his suspension took effect.
Hayward said he filed the petition – an extraordinary measure that is utilized in cases alleging egregious violations – as a last-ditch effort to help his clients before he began serving the one-year suspension of his law license.
“I’ll admit I made mistakes, but that doesn’t change the fact they are stealing kids,” Hayward said in an interview Thursday, referring to Children and Youth.
The Children and Youth director and a court-appointed attorney in such cases disputed the allegations.
Hayward, of Wilkes-Barre, has spoken out passionately about abuses he believes are being committed against parents by Children and Youth. He made headlines in June after he held a press conference to announce he planned to file a federal class-action lawsuit against the agency, alleging widespread violations of the constitutional rights of parents.
Hayward said Thursday the suit was never filed because of procedural issues relating to class-action suits. He said he decided to file the King’s Bench petition because he wants to ensure the problems are exposed in the hopes the Supreme Court will take some action.
“If they don’t look at this ... no one is ever going to stop what’s going on here,” Hayward said. “Kids are being ruined. Families are being ruined ... If we can’t protect our children and protect our families, what are we?”
The petition asks the high court to review all cases in dependency court dating back to 1999 to determine if children and/or their parents were denied the effective assistance of counsel.
It was not clear Thursday whether the high court will accept the petition, however. A clerk in the Supreme Court’s prothonotary’s office said the court is now reviewing the matter.
Hayward said he understands he cannot do any further work on the petition, but believes it should be accepted because it was made before his suspension.
“I hope it doesn’t matter. If it does matter, I’m hoping another attorney in Luzerne County or Pennsylvania has the guts to step forward and take it over,” he said.
Hayward said he modeled the petition after the one that was filed in 2008 by the Juvenile Law Center on behalf of juveniles who appeared without attorneys before former Judge Mark Ciavarella in juvenile delinquency court
The 19-page petition likens the workings of dependency court to the “kids-for-cash” scandal involving Ciavarella, who was accused of jailing juveniles for financial profit, except dependency court is worse, Hayward says.
“The ‘kids-for-cash’ scandal only sent children away for months or longer. This scandal takes children off their parents forever while caseworkers and their supervisors do what they want at will with no consequences,” Hayward says in the petition.
The petition makes allegations against Children and Youth caseworkers, as well as two judges who hear dependency actions and attorneys who represent parents and children.
Hayward says some caseworkers have told parents they “have more power than God.” One caseworker brags her nickname is the “terminator” because she has had only two children returned to their parents in four years, he says.
Caseworkers routinely mislead judges, lie to parents and “gang up” on them to coerce them into agreeing to turn over custody by threatening them that they will never see their child again, Hayward says.
The agency also orders parents with no history of substance abuse to undergo drug-and-alcohol counseling and intentionally delays referrals to various programs, particularly parenting classes, so that it can keep children in placement longer.
The petition also faults the court system for failing to ensure parents and children are adequately represented at hearings.
While praising county Judge Tina Polachek Gartley and Senior Judge Chester Muroski, Hayward harshly criticizes senior judges Clinton Smith and Charles Brown, who hear many of the dependency cases, and attorney Michael Shucosky, a court master who makes recommendations to the judges.
Hayward contends Smith, Brown and Shucosky routinely grant Children and Youth’s petitions to remove children from their homes even though little to no evidence is presented to support the action.
He also takes aim at attorneys John Bellino, who serves as guardian ad litem – the court-appointed attorney who represents the child independent of the parents -- and Andrew Lentkowski, a court-appointed attorney who represents parents.
Hayward alleges Bellino rarely interviews the children before making his recommendations. He makes similar allegations against Lentkowski, whom he alleges would not meet with parents until five or 10 minutes before the hearing.
Frank Castano, executive director of Children and Youth, denounced Hayward’s allegations.
“You can make any allegations you want,” Castano said. “Does he have any factual evidence to support that?”
Castano said Hayward’s allegation that Children and Youth intentionally works to keep children in placement is especially “ridiculous.”
The agency has reduced the number of children in placement by 250 over the past two years, he said, due in large part to its participation in two state programs.
“We’ve worked hand in hand with (the state) to improve practices and implement programs to improve permanency outcomes,” he said.
Contacted Thursday, Lentkowski said he “obviously does not agree” with Hayward’s allegations. He declined to comment further, saying he had not yet seen the petition.
Bellino, Shucosky, Smith and Brown did not immediately return phone messages seeking comment.
Michael Pendolphi, a Forty Fort attorney who handles many Children and Youth cases, said he agrees with many of the allegations Hayward makes against Children and Youth, but he disputes allegations relating to Bellino and Smith and Clinton.
Pendolphi reviewed the petition filed by Hayward at the request of a reporter. He said he often disagrees with Bellino’s assessment, but he believes the attorney does a thorough investigation of each child’s case before he makes a recommendation. He said he also believes Smith and Clinton take great care in reviewing cases.
“I have practiced before both of them and think they are exemplary,” he said.
As for caseworkers, Pendolphi said Hayward’s allegations are “100 percent true.”
“I’ve witnessed them lie. I’ve witnessed them manipulate people. It’s absolutely true,” Pendolphi said. “They intimidate and threaten parents. I’ve witnessed that first hand.”
Told of Pendolphi’s comments, Castano said attorneys should bring those issues before the judge if they believe their clients are being abused.
“Without knowing case specifics, it’s very difficult to comment,” Castano said. “If he has evidence of that and wants to present to he has an opportunity to do so.”