I’ve written once before on the problems of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Those problems are legion and the county is moving to rectify them. This editorial raises an issue I’ve long been concerned about that goes far beyond the borders of one California County – the secrecy of legal proceedings involving the care of juveniles (Los Angeles Times, 12/19/10). Remarkably, secrecy of legal proceedings involving children is the norm in, for example, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and other countries of the European Union. The L.A. Times piece is a pretty good primer on why that’s a bad idea.
Among the most fervent advocates of transparency is Michael Nash, the presiding judge of Los Angeles County Juvenile Court. He backed the efforts of Schiff and Steinberg and has urged the Legislature to finally adopt legislation to open dependency proceedings. He’s done that even though one group that would be more closely watched if hearings were open is judges.
Judges and others involved in child welfare, Nash said last week, “need to be accountable to the public we serve.” The current emphasis on closed hearings, he added, has worked to undermine the primary responsibility of dependency courts: the protection of children. “The main entity that’s protected by closing these proceedings is the system itself,” he argued. And that system, as Nash noted, “is far from perfect.”
Nash is spot-on. Just last week I did a piece on the Texas child welfare system that, in the course of eight years had turned a blind eye to the deaths of five separate children at a single group home near Houston. You read that right – five dead children, all asphyxiated by group home staff in a single facility. During that time, that home never lost its license to operate a home for the protection of children. So when Judge Nash says secrecy protects, not children, but the system itself, he couldn’t be more right. ‘Twas ever thus. One of the main concepts behind laws promoting transparency in government is that We the People are entitled to know what’s being done in our names and with our money. In all the whoop-di-do over Julian Assange and the disclosures of documents by WikiLeaks, a seldom noticed aspect is how pedestrian most of the information is. As far as I can tell, the vast majority of what’s been made public is about as interesting and controversial as a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new sewage treatment plant. And yet much of that was deemed too sensitive for public access by the officials who decide secrecy matters in government documents. So I regard it as an eternal truth that people have the right to know what our elected officials and civil servants are up to. Are there exceptions to that rule? Of course there are. Some things truly shouldn’t be made public and we can have a discussion about what those things are. But the default position should be public disclosure. But the issue of transparency or secrecy in juvenile proceedings goes much further than that simple basic rule. Face it, a U.S. diplomat may be embarrassed when his cable dissing a foreign dignitary is disclosed. But that’s OK; he’ll know to be more careful next time. He never needed the secrecy accorded him by government policy anyway. But when the safety of children is compromised by the secrecy that government actors and private ones in the pay of the government seem invariably to prefer, that secrecy must go. Period. When governmental officials tell us it’s better that we not know what they’re doing, it’s safe to assume that the “reason” they give is not a reason at all, but an excuse. And when child welfare workers know that what they do or don’t do will not be held up to public scrutiny, you can bet that they won’t be as careful as they would be if they knew a newspaper might get access to it. So that’s yet another argument in favor of openness – children’s safety may be improved. I’ve posted several pieces pointing out that CPS case workers have a hard job. They sometimes have very tough calls to make. They often have to determine whether a particular child’s home situation is the result of parental neglect or parental poverty. The former may mean a bad parent the latter may mean a good parent in a bad situation. CPS workers are often overworked and underpaid; they’re often poorly trained. And they have a difficult job in which the consequences of a wrong decision can be far more catastrophic than those in almost any other job. If we did all we can to connect fathers to children, a lot of the need for CPS would vanish altogether, but even then, there would still be a need for child welfare agencies. And as long as that’s true, we need to know what they’re doing. As the tragedies in Texas show, children’s lives depend on it.