The decision about the parental rights of Christine and Jeremy Long, whose children endured years of neglect in Burke County, will be made behind closed doors, a judge decided last week.
Prior attempts by Christine Long's attorneys and the Department of Family and Children Services to close Superior Court proceedings have failed. But a judge denied The Augusta Chronicle's request to attend the hearing in Juvenile Court.
The Longs' 10 underage children were taken into protective custody July 31, 2008, when they were found living in an abandoned shack in rural Burke County without food, water, electricity, heat, education, medical care, bedding or proper clothing and shoes.
The Longs were indicted on 10 counts of cruelty to children and five counts of failure to provide an education. Both pleaded guilty. Jeremy Long is serving a three-year prison sentence. Christine Long is serving a probated sentence that includes alternate weekends in jail.
Though the criminal case has been closed, the issue of the Longs' parental rights is open.
Thomas B. Hammond, a juvenile judge in the Toombs Judicial Circuit, was appointed to preside over the Longs' Burke County Juvenile Court case.
Hammond is to decide whether the children should be reunited with either or both parents. He could also terminate the Longs' parental rights, which would mean the children could be adopted.
Because Hammond has closed the proceedings, the court records are also sealed, said Davis Dunaway, the attorney who represented The Chronicle in the case.
Hammond wrote in a 21/2-page order stating that the children's right to privacy overrode the public's right to know. Two of the children, according to affidavits, feared going to school because of the possibility the news coverage would lead classmates to question and tease them.
Jeremy Long took no position on the newspaper's request to attend the hearing, but Hammond's order states that Christine Long opposed it.
At her July 31 sentencing hearing, Christine Long's attorneys tried to keep the public from hearing from a child abuse expert who reviewed the case. A public airing of the expert's report would needlessly embarrass the children, the attorneys argued.
Judge James G. Blanchard Jr. refused to close the hearing. Dr. Jordan Greenbaum testified that of the estimated hundred child neglect cases she had reviewed, the Long family was one of the three worst she had ever seen. Both parents were responsible, she testified.
Christine Long's sentencing hearing was the only chance for the foster parents of the Long children to speak on their behalf in public.
When describing a protracted medical procedure an 8-year-old boy endured, his foster mother said, "He suffered through it, so we should have to suffer through it by hearing about it."
It wasn't the first time a person entrusted with watching over the children felt the need to make a public plea on their behalf.
On March 31-- just days after Superior Court Judge J. David Roper issued an order that stopped DFCS's plans to send the oldest children home with Christine Long -- guardian Nancy Minyard reported that two of the children said their mother, with Burke County Sheriff Greg Coursey by her side, tried to coerce them into recanting what they had told prosecutors.
In arguing for Roper's hearing to be closed, Christine Long's attorneys cited the need to protect the children and the family's right to privacy.
"There has been no privacy in this case," Roper responded, adding that if there was ever a case that needed to be conducted in public, the Long case was it.
"Sunshine is a great disinfectant," said Roper, who is also assigned to the Longs' divorce case.
Since Jan. 1, the law in Georgia has changed concerning the public's right to attend juvenile court proceedings.
The new law opens proceedings dealing with child abuse and neglect cases, but it also allows the judge to close the hearings if he finds it is in the best interest of the children.
In Hammond's order closing the Long case, he cites affidavits signed by two of the children. The affidavits state that the children were embarrassed and humiliated when they began attending school and that they feared the unwanted attention and questions from students would start again if the newspaper was allowed to attend the juvenile court hearings.
The affidavits were obtained by an attorney Hammond appointed to serve as the children's legal guardian. She argued in favor of keeping the Juvenile Court proceedings closed.