Judge bars media in Dollar children's case

Date: 2005-03-11

St. Petersburg Times

A judge on Wednesday barred the media and public from attending future court proceedings involving the Dollar children.

The request to block courtroom access came from attorneys who represent the children, the state Department of Children and Families and the children's parents, John and Linda Dollar.

"As important as we all know the First Amendment is," Circuit Judge Barbara Gurrola said, her responsibility is "to see to it that these children are protected."

According to attorneys who participated in an emergency hearing Wednesday morning, the children are aware of media coverage of the case.

"The court is concerned about the psychological and emotional well-being of their children," Gurrola said.

The judge also issued two additional orders.

First, she instructed DCF to alert her and the children's court-appointed attorney, Jack Moring, if the agency decides the children should be moved from one foster home to another. DCF moved three of the Dollar children last week.

Second, Gurrola directed the state to arrange for the children to meet each week so they can spend time together. Moring told the judge that he attended one such meeting recently and found the children quite happy to see each other.

John and Linda Dollar are accused of torturing five of their children, using starvation, isolation, a cattle prod and pliers, among other techniques and tools. The parents face multiple felony counts and are at the Citrus County jail awaiting trial.

DCF has placed the five children into foster homes and is moving to terminate the Dollars' parental rights.

At the start of Wednesday's hearing three lawyers - Michael Manning, who represents John and Linda Dollar; Joyce Miller, a DCF managing attorney; and Moring - asked the judge to bar the media and the public. John and Linda Dollar, wearing their red jail jumpsuits, sat quietly at the defense table.

Manning said the proceedings before Gurrola involving the possible termination of the Dollars' parental rights require privacy.

Closing such proceedings doesn't happen often, but Miller argued that Gurrola could do so. State law says she may do so if she deems that, as the state statute says, "the public interest or the welfare of the child is best served by doing so."

Moring, the children's attorney, called the news coverage a "media circus."

During the ensuing discussion, a March 5 report in the Citrus County Chronicle was mentioned as a reason the judge should restrict media and public access. The story referenced the mental health status of one Dollar child.

Gurrola told the attorneys that she would take their request under advisement. When she began to ask about the reasons for the children's removal from their foster home placements, the attorneys stood and asked to speak privately with the judge.

"There are things that may embarrass the children," Moring said.

The sidebar discussion took up about a third of the 40-minute hearing. When it was over, Gurrola praised Citrus County as a community in which residents believe in taking care of one another and suggested that residents would understand that she closed the hearings to protect the children.

After the hearing, Moring declined to comment on the case. But he added, "I think the less that's printed about these children the better."

The parties are scheduled to meet again on March 22.


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