California dependency courts need to be open, legislators told
Children’s advocates, judges and government officials told state legislators Tuesday that opening proceedings for dependency court would improve accountability and transparency for a key branch of the legal system that handles cases of child abuse, child neglect and foster care placements.?
“There is a lot that is not good [in the dependency courts], and that’s an understatement,” Michael Nash, presiding judge of the juvenile courts for Los Angeles County, said at an oversight hearing before the Assembly Judiciary Committee in Sacramento. “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.”
The comments were met with concerns and criticisms from some social workers and public defenders who said that opening the hearings might traumatize vulnerable children. They also argued that more transparency might make family members and the children themselves less forthcoming. Changes in law could lead to additional costs for the courts by requiring new training and time-consuming hearings, they added.
Current California laws, which presume that the hearings are closed unless otherwise opened by the judge, best protect the children involved, said William Patton, a professor at Whittier Law School, who opposes opening the courts.
The Assembly committee has a bill, AB 73, which proposes to open the dependency courts but allows judges the discretion to close certain hearings. A number of other states have moved to make their dependency courts more accessible to the public.
The proposal is supported by Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services. Deputy Director Maryam Fatemi told the committee Tuesday that increased access would shed light on systemic problems and make the public better aware of issues involved with protecting children.
Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), who introduced the bill, said that based on the comments at the hearing, he would probably introduce a bill proposing a pilot program for open court proceedings.
“Ultimately, I believe it’s in the best interest of children to have a court where the public can see both strengths and deficiencies in the system,” Feuer said after the hearing. He cited Minnesota’s move to open dependency courts, where, he said, no additional harm to children or their families was shown.
One judge said he had essentially been running an open court for years, allowing anyone with an interest, including media, to sit in his courtroom. Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Leonard Edwards said families or attorneys rarely took issue with the openness. Motions to close the court were brought up once every year or two, he said.
Edwards said the presumption that dependency court proceedings are secret leads to a closed atmosphere that does a disservice to the court and the families involved.
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