MANSFIELD — A juvenile court judge said sanctions against Richland County Children Services were a matter of upholding the law.
Juvenile Court Judge Ron Spon ordered the agency to pay $15,000 in fines and reimbursements Wednesday for criminal contempt of court. The dispute stemmed from an August 2011 incident in the Children Services lobby. A parent said a case aide threatened to take his recorder and ended a visit with his daughter prematurely.
Spon ordered the agency to turn over the security video recording of the incident, but that never happened. The case dragged on for a year.
“This was never about Judge Spon and Mr. (Randy) Parker. It was never about personalities,” Spon said. “It was not this court versus the agency.”
Spon said upholding the rule of law is “one of the most fundamental principles of our republic.”
The judge ordered Children Services to pay $10,000 to reimburse the county general fund for legal fees. He also fined the agency $20,000, but suspended $15,000 if Children Services meets other conditions.
None of the money can come from funds set aside for foster placement or other direct services for children.
Spon made a clarification, saying Parker, the former director, was not dismissed from the contempt proceedings because he was never part of them. Still, the judge placed most of the blame on Parker for not turning over the tape.
“What made the violation of the court order and the contempt so egregious and aggravating is it appears that not only was the director keeping the truth from the court, but then keeping the truth from the board,” Spon said. “This was not only an assault against the court’s order. It was a horrific assault against the rule of law.”
The judge said board members had to share part of the blame.
“I think the board should have acted more aggressively,” Spon said. “They should have been on this. For whatever reason, it didn’t occur.”
Spon acknowledged there has been some turnover on the board since the dispute arose. One of the new board members is chairman Robert Konstam. He accepted the sanctions.
“The willful disregard of the court’s order to turn over the videotape was inexcusable, unlawful and a direct affront to the dignity and authority of the court,” Konstam said. “We apologize to the court and also the community it serves. With an expanded board of trustees, a new interim director and concerted efforts, we hope our apology will underscore many recent changes at the agency made to better serve our constituents and the public agencies we work with for the children and families of Richland County.”
In January, the board voted 12-0 to reject a proposed agreement to avoid the contempt action. Under that agreement, the board would have admitted Parker told staff not to release the security tape in question.
Spon questioned Konstam about the vote.
“If you’re telling me that you and the rest of the board knew in January that he (Parker) intentionally violated the order, I’m curious to know why the board voted 12-0,” the judge asked.
Konstam replied, “It really comes down to an issue of communication and the relationship the board had with its director. The board had fallen into a pattern of accepting information provided to it by the director without looking beyond the director.”
Konstam said the board was split over Parker.
Spon gave his opinion.
“The tail was wagging the dog here,” he said.
“No question about it,” Konstam replied.
Spon also questioned the hiring of Cleveland attorney R. Scot Harvey, who represented the agency in the matter until he recently withdrew. Children Services paid him more than $76,000.
“What became clear to me … all of his actions indicated he was protecting the director and not the agency,” Spon said.
Spon asked about former board chairwoman Nancy Joyce, who resigned in May when the board placed Parker on administrative leave. Joyce was part of a meeting with Parker and three agency attorneys late last year. The topic was whether to turn over the security tape.
“It is my belief Nancy Joyce was told it was a security issue and the law doesn’t require us to turn over the tape,” Konstam said. “I believe that drove her decision.”
Joyce reportedly backed the decision not to turn over the tape.
Spon was not swayed by Konstam’s explanation.
“When she tells the director to go ahead and resist, she owns it. That’s how I look at it,” the judge said. “If anyone knew what was happening, it was Nancy Joyce.”
Joyce issued a statement by email.
“I volunteered over 11 years with the sole purpose of protecting children. It is regrettable that the lack of communication that led to these proceedings overshadowed the agency’s good work,” she said. “It is my sincere hope that this matter will now be laid to rest so that all involved can refocus their energies on the core mission of providing children and families of Richland County with aid and support.”
Konstam touched on the same issues.
“Our most important failing was a lack of communication — from its director to its board, among the board members and from the agency to the community,” he said. “In response, we have undertaken a number of steps. … Underlying all of these changes is the belief we must be able to work collaboratively to provide the kind of protective services children deserve.”
The case might not be over. Spon said he would refer it to the prosecutor’s office for possible criminal or civil action.
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