Let sun shine on dependency court

One of the most important pieces of state legislation to be introduced this year — a bill to open California's dependency courts to the public — faces a tough committee vote Tuesday. That should not be the case. AB 73 by Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) has the potential to significantly improve the lives of thousands of children, at no cost to taxpayers. But because organized labor is agitated at the prospect of increased scrutiny of some of its members, the bill is in jeopardy.

Dependency courts are where the fates of troubled children often are decided. The judges who oversee those proceedings decide whether children should be taken from their homes or reunited with their families, whether they belong in foster care or under the custody of a parent or other relative. It is no exaggeration to say that lives turn on those questions.

Unlike in criminal courts, however, those proceedings take place largely in secret, ostensibly to protect the privacy of children but in fact more often to insulate social workers, lawyers and judges from public accountability. Feuer's bill would subtly but importantly change that. Judges would operate under a rule that hearings are open, though they would still retain the right — as they do in adult proceedings — to close them if especially delicate or sensitive matters are to be discussed. Children would have no fear of having to testify to intimate details of their lives in open court, but the public could be assured that its dependency system — which the public pays for, after all — is subject to oversight. Indeed, Feuer's bill stops short of mandating that rule for the whole state, as it would merely launch a pilot project, with an eye toward analyzing the results and then expanding it statewide if the pilot is successful.

After a moving and enlightening hearing earlier this year, the Assembly's Judiciary Committee saw the wisdom of Feuer's proposal and unanimously supported it, voting 10 to 0 in favor, a rare bipartisan endorsement. That was before organized labor declared its opposition and its longtime friend, California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton, began lobbying against the bill.

The prospect of opening dependency courts is understandably unsettling to some, but this is hardly a radical or novel proposal. More than a dozen states have opened dependency proceedings, with uniformly positive results. And if openness here should inexplicably produce negative results, the pilot need not be extended. Judges, led by Michael Nash, the presiding judge of the juvenile courts for Los Angeles County, strongly support this bill, and the Legislature should pass it.

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