LA Judge Opens Juvenile Dependency Cases to the Press

February 2nd, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

We have long campaigned for reform of dependency court and child protective services. For example, in 2007 we launched a successful national protest campaign against the Florida Department of Children & Families in the highly-publicized “Elian Gonzalez II Case.” One of the reasons why these types of injustices occur is that in most states, dependency court proceedings are closed to the public and the media. Since 2005, F & F and others have lobbied California lawmakers to increase transparency in dependency court proceedings. 
Now these efforts are coming to fruition with AB 73–to learn more, click here.

Judge Michael Nash, presiding judge of Los Angeles County’s Juvenile Courts, has ordered that proceedings in child dependency cases be opened to the press.  Read about it here (Los Angeles Times, 2/1/12).  Up to now, all dependency hearings have been closed to any form of public scrutiny unless a special request was made by a member of the press.  According to the linked-to article, those requests were rarely granted.

Nash’s order extends only to dependency cases.  Those are cases involving child abuse or neglect, foster care and adoption.  Cases involving allegations of criminal conduct on the part of a juvenile are not subject to the order.

The order reverses the burden of proof required to open a case in juvenile court.  Until now, the burden of proof was on the news organization seeking to attend the hearings and report on the case.  Nash’s order presumes the case will be open to the news media and places the burden of proof on the person seeking to close it.

Astonishingly enough, the order extends only to members of the news media.  Those members of the public not employed by a news organization are still barred from juvenile court dependency hearings.  So everyday people will have to rely on the good offices of a the press to find out what they need to know about particular cases.  If the press isn’t interested, the public won’t get to know what’s going on behind the doors of juvenile court that are still closed to it.

Judge Michael Nash said he wanted to open the proceedings because secrecy had allowed problems to fester outside of the public’s view. Without access to the courts, news organizations have been forced to rely on incomplete case records released months or years after decisions were made.

Nash is certainly right to open the courts to scrutiny by the press.  I’ve commented before that secrecy on the part of courts, child welfare agencies or any other agency of government is an open invitation to corruption, incompetence and law-breaking.  How many times do we need to learn that lesson?  And wherever children are the subject of a governmental function, they provide a ready excuse to hide the doings of the agency behind the veil of “protecting the child.”  Generally speaking, that’s bunk.  Governmental officials aren’t protecting the children, they’re protecting themselves and the few times we get a peek inside proves the fact.

After all, isn’t that why Los Angeles County has refused to turn over records of children’s deaths to the state-appointed auditor who’s specifically tasked with figuring out what went wrong behind the closed doors of the county child welfare agency?  Count on it; when that information comes to light, as it eventually will, we’ll see plenty of malfeasance on the part of child welfare employees.

So Nash’s order is a step in the right direction.  It’ll surely make child welfare workers more careful in what they do and how they do it, and that’s not a bad thing.  But his requirement that we the people must rely on the press for our information is troubling to say the least.  Why can’t anyone attend court hearings?  Why can’t anyone look in the court’s records?  Why are the people of Los Angeles County treated like, well, children who can’t behave responsibly with the information in those hidden files?  And if the people aren’t responsible, why does Nash tell us that reporters are?

To be generous with Nash, I’ll guess he fashioned the best order he could under the circumstances.  Even so, he’s getting push-back from a variety of quarters.

Nash, the longest-serving Juvenile Court judge in the state, has long been an advocate for transparency in the courts. He released a draft of his order in November. The proposal sharply divided the child welfare community and brought denunciations from some county supervisors, social worker union leaders and others…

County lawyers did not officially oppose Nash’s order, but Supervisors Don Knabe and Michael D. Antonovich wrote letters of opposition, saying the order would invade the privacy of abused children. The union representing social workers also opposed the move, saying it was contrary to the law and that access should be granted only on a case-specific basis.

So for now I’ll chalk up to political necessity Nash’s cutting the public out of court  ”transparency.”  Better to get something than nothing which may well have been the case if he’d issued a blanket order.

Still, there should be a rule – that the people get to know what their government is up to.  There can be exceptions to the rule, but those who would blind us to the actions of officials we pay to act on our behalf must bear the heaviest of burdens to convince us that we’re better off not knowing.

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