by Steven Greenhut | March 14, 2011 9:57 am
The most heart-wrenching issues I’ve written about involved the state’s dependency court and foster-care systems. Officials have the power to remove children from their family homes and to place them in the care of strangers, yet the system that exercises these vast powers is veiled in secrecy and, therefore, off-limits to serious news coverage and oversight.
Fortunately, Assembly Bill 73, by Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, offers hope of fixing that system with a simple but time-tested approach: sunshine. His new legislation would make hearings in dependency court presumptively open, meaning that the public and media could cover the goings-on unless a judge finds good reason to close the proceedings.
Typically, I would hear from a distraught parent whose child had been taken into protective custody. Imagine the horror of such a situation. Often, the child would be taken by force as child-protective services officials would show up with armed deputies. In the world of CPS, the parent has no rights, and the child is taken away based mainly on the opinion of the social worker, who might start an investigation based on an anonymous tip. It’s a “guilty until proven innocent” system, based on the idea that if a child is in danger, that child must be removed from the home immediately.
America remains a remarkably free society, but there are parts of our society that are frighteningly totalitarian. This is one of them. In one case I wrote about, Russian immigrants watched as the authorities removed their autistic son from their home and placed him in one of those developmental institutions, where he was pumped full of drugs and kept away from his loving family. No one had ever accused the family of mistreating the boy, but the authorities decided that it would be better to treat him with drugs than in the drug-free manner preferred by the family.
I recall the parent telling me that the authorities would never touch your family in the Soviet Union. He was shocked that such a travesty could take place in America. In another case I wrote about, an 8-year-old girl was taken from the loving care of her grandmother and placed in the custody of a foster parent who had been accused of some rather bad behavior at his foster home. In yet another case, a social worker was credibly accused of committing fraud – by claiming that a child’s burn was the result of abuse rather than a household accident. It was extremely difficult getting any information about these situations. The approach from the authorities was clear: It was none of anybody’s business. No wonder so many parents live in fear.
On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve all read about children who are left in abusive homes and end up being brutally abused, even murdered. Many of the bigger CPS systems are bureaucratic nightmares. We’d like to think that the people who make these decisions operate with a Solomonic sense of justice, yet we know better given what we know about closed bureaucracies.
A recent San Jose Mercury News editorial supporting AB73 detailed the same problems: “Three years ago, Mercury News reporter Karen de Sá documented the troubled state of this system. Her yearlong investigation found that overwhelmed, undertrained lawyers weren’t properly representing their clients, that older children were too often excluded from proceedings affecting their lives, and that parents’ and children’s rights were routinely at risk.”
Year after year, we see attempts to increase funding or reform the system, yet nothing ever changes. This is not a money issue but, rather, a problem rooted in the nature of the system. Feuer’s bill could actually help. There’s nothing like sunshine to expose injustice and create a push for reform.
Here is the bill summary: “Existing law provides that the public shall not be admitted to a juvenile court hearing in a dependency proceeding, unless requested by a parent or guardian and consented to or requested by the minor concerning whom the petition has been filed. Existing law permits the judge or referee to admit those persons as he or she deems to have a direct and legitimate interest in the particular case or the work of the court. This bill would express the intent of the Legislature to enact legislation to provide that juvenile court hearings in juvenile dependency cases shall be presumptively open to the public, unless the court finds that admitting the public would not be in a child’s best interest.”
Feuer is still crafting the final measure and is considering a pilot program. Seventeen states have presumptively open dependency court hearings, and the results are good. One judge from Minnesota attended a recent hearing in Sacramento and testified about the value of an open system. We don’t need much testimony to know that openness is the preferred path in a free society.
While legislators waste their time introducing bills designed to play to their partisan base, here’s someone who is looking to fix an actual problem. I don’t often agree with Feuer’s politics, but this is a stellar effort and proof that there can be areas of genuine bipartisanship. Possible resistance might come from unions, which generally prefer that their workers be able to do their jobs without much public input.
We’ll see how it plays out, but let’s hope legislators from both sides of the aisle take the side of openness and reform.
Source URL: https://calwatchdog.com/2011/03/14/end-soviet-style-kids-courts/
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