Open Juvenile Court

Open Juvenile Court 032311

News and Two Opinions from the Prospect

State Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, has proposed a bill which would let some sunshine in to one of the most secretive courts in our society, the courts that deal with families.

These courts represent juveniles in violation of the law, and children seeking guardianships, and children in CWS cases.  As we’ve learned by the famous “gag order” case in Sierra County, the system is able to do its work completely shielded from public scrutiny.

Feuer’s bill would open the shutters on those courts. AB73 would make the presumption of an open trial, but leaves the judge the opportunity to “gag” those cases which warrant extra confidentiality.  Nearly 20 states have at least some degree of openness to dependency and other court procedures concerning children.

Los Angeles County presiding juvenile courts judge Michael Nash is quoted in the LA Times   as saying. "There is a lot that is not good [in the dependency courts], and that's an understatement. Too many families do not get reunified ... too many children and families languish in the system for far too long. Someone might want to know why this is the case."

Indeed, Nevada County Family Court Services mediator Emily Gallup has filed suit saying that family court in that county is not following the law, and that she was terminated wrongfully for exposing it.  Under AB73 she could have gone to the press with her complaints.  See her story HERE 

Not surprisingly, there are detractors on the idea.  Social workers and psychologists have stepped forward to complain on behalf of children, who, they say, will suffer if court is opened to public view.  Most notably, the union representing the state’s child welfare social workers has spoken out against the bill which would open its members to public scrutiny. They claim that children will suffer stigmatization, and they might not be as forthcoming in public court as in the ultra secret system in use now.

This is unlikely.  Children in foster care are already recognizable; most of the children in school know who is in foster care, and foster kids often tend to hang out together even at school.  Children in foster care aren’t supposed to discuss their cases, but of course they always do, comparing notes like prisoners do about how to work the system and how to get a better deal the next time out.

Not everyone is against the open court; Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services Deputy Director Maryam Fatemi spoke to the legislature in favor of the change.

In the final analysis, it is the system itself which fears the bright light of public view.  Experts claim that the judge is the representative of the people, making sure the law is followed, but in real life it is seldom that simple.  Judges work day in and day out with public defenders and appointed attorneys, and they see the same social workers over and over.  Only the families change, and that puts them on the outside of a very chummy situation.

It is not likely that merely opening dependency cases will make a tremendous amount of difference.  The public doesn’t generally attend criminal trials, and when they do they are viewed with suspicion, as again court is a familiar dance between the DA, the public defender and the judge. 

However, it is a first step.  The next important step is to raise the level of “proof” the state needs before going into a family.  Under the current system, hearsay is as powerful as fact.  Increasing the burden of proof on the state would mean fewer families would find themselves trapped in the system.

AB73 as a good first step in deconstructing the mess that is the “child protective system” in California.


Dissenting view:

The Dissenting Editor is in rehab or is otherwise occupied currently, but was able to send some comments on AB73.

She made the case that if newspapers were allowed into court, kids would never be able to leave their past, since it would persist forever on the internet, and moldering away in a stack of pulp. 

She suggested that the current situation also protects the parents who have their dirty laundry, raging alcoholic binges, and sexual deviance aired in court.  She suggested that little would be gained from opening dependency court to the public.

The Fringe Editor acknowledges Dissenting concerns, but notes that if the parent has committed a crime in abusing or neglecting their child, the criminal trial is already open to the press.  Like most newspapers, the Prospect routinely omits the names of minors.



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