published Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

Juvenile Court technology updates long overdue

  • photo
    Shelves of case files at the Hamilton County Juvenile Court Child Support Division in Chattanooga. Gary Behler has worked to modernize the office, including digitizing court files, since taking over as court clerk three years ago.
    Photo by Maura Friedman /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

It seems inconceivable that any court handling cases involving children has been doing so for years without the benefit of computerized files.

Instead, mounds of paperwork and case files have been lugged around from place to place, and, no doubt, misplaced.

In fact, Hamilton County Juvenile Court, which has 25,000 records between Juvenile Court and the child support division, didn't even have email until November 2011. Repeat: Juvenile Court workers didn't even have email until just over two years ago.

So its no wonder that a common complaint to news organizations in recent years has been about gummed-up child support cases or slow response time to child custody and juvenile crime cases.

Then, finally on Aug. 5, the Juvenile Court began moving into the late 20th century -- some 13 years after the world moved to the 21st century. By January, box by box, those 25,000 records will have been hauled to Cookeville, Tenn.,to be digitized. The result will be that attorneys and judges will be able to view these documents, photos, reports and testimonies simultaneously on monitors in courtrooms. Child support clerks will be able to apply payments immediately and find data for payers and recipients in moments, not days or weeks.

Seven courtrooms, four in Juvenile Court and three in child support, have been wired with video monitors. Soon even video conferencing will be possible to hold arraignments and hearings without the need to transport juveniles from the detention center or across the state when a meeting is needed.

The roughly $334,000 in improvements will save clerk and court time, as well as taxpayer money. Probably that much or more has been spent on hauling and filing time in recent years. But most importantly, the updating should help the court better manage children's cases and get them the best services.

The system won't be paperless. A paper backup file will still be created to remain in compliance with state law. And the system will still be private, in keeping with state law regarding juvenile hearings. Pre-approved user accesses will be logged to show who opened a file and what changes were made.

To say it is high-time this happened would be a gross understatement.

It frankly is a disgrace that such elemental system upkeep is just now happening. Other county, state and federal courts have long been plugged in to technology, and the children of Hamilton County have long deserved better speed and accountability in custody and court proceedings.

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