In the weeks since Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash opened this county's dependency proceedings to the press, there have been a number of revelations about a system that, until now, has been largely shielded from scrutiny. For the first time, the public is getting a broad look at the consequences of sloppy social work, the defensiveness of lawyers used to operating in secret, the agonizing decisions of judges, even the occasional happy outcome in which a family, once torn apart, is successfully reunited.
But one overarching fact of the dependency courts, where judges supervise the lives of children in foster care, is the high and hidden cost of delay. Some cases drag on for months, even years, while children lose their chance to begin their lives in secure, safe families.
Over the last two months, I have watched one such case drag on. Judge Tim Saito presided as birth parents challenged foster parents for custody of a 2-year-old girl taken from her birth parents when she was just a few days old because they had a previous record of abuse.
The girl was placed with a caring and quiet couple (I'm not naming them here because doing so might identify the little girl). Indeed, the decency of these foster parents is about the only uncontested fact in the case. They decided to build their family by coming to the aid of children who needed a home; just over two years ago, the county delivered them an infant girl.
The girl's birth parents, however, were unwilling to let go so easily. Though they had been forced to give up their other children after the county accused them of abuse — one infant girl suffered a broken femur, allegedly at her father's hand — they appealed for the return of their baby.
A judge could have heard evidence and decided the matter then; instead, the case kicked around the courts for more than a year, as the birth parents underwent counseling and dismissed lawyer after lawyer, each time forcing delays. Early this year, the county formally recommended that efforts at reunification be ended and that the foster parents be given custody.
Even then, the case dragged on. Time after time, the foster parents would be asked by Saito to appear in court. The foster father would miss a day of work — and, with it, wages. And then the day would slip away with barely any progress. One of the days I attended, Saito had asked the parties to be ready at 1:45 p.m. He didn't actually call the case until 3:55 p.m. Once inside the courtroom, the birth father again asked for a new lawyer, so the judge had to hear that matter. Ruling against that request this time, Saito resumed the trial. It lasted 20 minutes before Saito called it a day.
One afternoon, it looked as though a lot might get done. The parties were told their case would be up early because a social worker had been pulled off her job to testify. Nope. More than two hours passed without word. The social worker, who had recently undergone back surgery, squirmed uncomfortably in the waiting area.
Speaking with me, the foster parents did not criticize Saito, but their frustration with the process almost visibly tears at them. Interrupted testimony and repeated court appearances don't harm the lawyers or social workers, the father noted; they're paid to be there. "They don't have any problem continuing," he grimly told me one afternoon while the case was yet again on hold. "They don't have any problem delaying."
But it has harmed his family in myriad ways. It costs money: The foster parents estimate they have spent the equivalent of a year's worth of college tuition on legal bills. It has cost time: They have spent more than 20 days in court since the beginning of this year alone. Most heartbreakingly, it has added another element of stress in the young life of their foster daughter. While the case has been underway, the birth parents have had visitation rights; the girl is now at an age when it's threatening to become confusing to have another set of parents to call "Mommy" and "Daddy." She could have been nestled in a loving and secure foster family months ago. Instead, she faces conflict.
Last month, Saito finally concluded that efforts at reunification should cease and that the girl should remain with the foster parents. But the birth parents are still pressing, and are allowed visits while they're appealing.
Deborah Dentler is the lawyer for the foster parents, and she's exasperated by the ordeal her clients have endured. Dentler doesn't want to discourage potential foster parents from signing up, but she's worried about a system that effectively punishes those who do. Indeed, her hope is that the press coverage allowed by Nash's order opening the courts will encourage judges and others in the system to be more mindful of those whose lives are at stake.
As Dentler noted, "Justice delayed is justice denied to families and children." In dependency court, that injustice has been inflicted all too commonly, without any accountability for those responsible.
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