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Appeals Court Says Child Dependency Court Stays Open

February 17th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

Those wishing to slam shut the Children’s dependency court where foster care and family reunification cases are heard, were dealt a setback
on Wednesday when two petitions were denied that sought to overturn a new order by Los Angeles County Children’s Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash allowing reporters to observe hearings unless it can be determined that the journalist’s presence will do harm to the child or children in the individual case.

Children’s Court Hearings—the hearings pertaining to matters such as whether or not a child should be taken away from parents or returned to them, and the like—have traditionally been closed tightly against any kind of outside monitoring until Judge Nash issued his order earlier this month.

In a two-line ruling the 3-judge panel at the 2nd District of the California Court of Appeals said that the petition was denied “for lack of standing.”

In other words, come back and see us if and when you can show how a kid has been hurt by the presence of a reporter.

[Garrett Therolf of the LA Times has more on the decision.]

There has been much controversy ever since Judge Nash issued his order allowing some metaphorical sunshine into the court in the form of press coverage, thus disrupting the fiercely protected secrecy that has characterized the Department of Children and Family Services cases.

Advocates for social workers and court attorneys have predicted that kids coming out of abusive situations would be harmed by a stranger sitting in a court room where their cases are discussed.

However, as anyone who has ever sat through a number of those hearings knows, the courtroom is already loaded with strangers. In fact, the minute a child hits the foster care system, his or her life is shoved about by a list of strangers. To suggest that a reporter will add some kind of uniquely harmful foreign element to the mix is grossly exaggerated at best and, and in most cases, simply counterfactual.

Also there is the mistaken assumption that hoards of reporters will want to cover foster care hearings. Save for a few dedicated and hardy souls, or barring some unusual high-profile case, the media hoards will be elsewhere, trust me. It’s anything but exciting and easy to cover a DCFS case. There’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. Plus the hearings on a single case can be spread out over weeks or months.

Yet those reporters who do make the time and effort have the opportunity, not only to shine a light on the parts of the system that are still so horribly broken, they also might possibly with their presence—and reporting—make a crucial difference in a case that might have otherwise gone in a sad or tragic direction.

Kevin Uhrich, editor of the Pasadena Weekly writes about that issue in a column on the hullabaloo surrounding Judge Nash’s order to open the courts.

First he mentions a wonderful series on foster care kids that reporter Joe Piasecki did for the paper. And then:

…More recently, the paper covered the case of a mentally infirm mother, whose two children — one an adorable infant, the other a slightly older toddler, both seemingly happy — were taken from her in late 2010 and were almost immediately prepped for adoption by the LA County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

Much as Joe did with his wards of the court, all ostensibly “protected” by law from exposure in the press, we covered this case through the mother’s eyes — mainly because no one at DCFS would talk to us. We tried to make contact, but no one returned our calls. Neither did attorneys for the county nor the mother’s attorneys, so fearful were they of being sanctioned by the court for speaking with the press.

To write this story, we were forced to rely on the mother, who came to us with her problems and was more than happy to share stories and corresponding documents related to her quixotic quest to get her kids back. Her few advocates believed, as did we, that at the very least something was troubling about the ease with which anonymous and unaccountable county social workers simply took children away from their biological mothers and fathers, a rather common occurrence in LA County, or so we learned through our reporting.

Granted, the mother had many personal issues to work out, and perhaps she wasn’t fit. But why then did the court refuse the many requests of her socially well-established parents living in another state to care for those babies? These grandparents were certainly financially stable enough folks of good Midwestern stock, and they were willing to raise these children as their own. But they were repeatedly rebuffed by the court, according to them, and the records we were able to obtain.

So were we just “butting in,” invading people’s privacy in search of sensational copy with which to titillate and amuse our readers? The answer, of course, is no. We were equal parts shocked and outraged at what we learned throughout the course of reporting this story. We also were, and still remain, genuinely concerned about these people, as any right-thinking person with a shred of basic morality would be.

More importantly, though, did any of our coverage matter in the final disposition of this tragic case, which ultimately saw the infant go to the grandparents and the older child turned over to adoptive parents?

I can’t say for sure, mainly because the judge never explained her reasoning to us or to the anxious grandparents, who ripped through their life savings traveling back and forth from their home to California to attend court hearings and pay for lawyers. But I do know that this judge’s final decision to split up the children might not have happened at all had the paper failed to notify the grandparents about what was happening to their kin in court. Nor would anyone have known that the judge in the end inexplicably decided against the recommendation of DCFS workers to turn both youngsters over to their grandparents….

On the other side of the coin, there is last year’s horrific case of Vyctorya Sandoval- a pretty toddler who was inexplicably returned to her erratic mother against the panicked advice from the girl’s grandmother, family friends and a foster care official, and, as a consequence, soon wound up dead, with bruises, a fractured rib, thirsty and starving.

After the story broke in the LA Times, I was contacted by someone very close to the family who gave me additional details on all the warnings there had been, a plethora of red flags, plus the pleading letters to the court from those who were worried that the mother would hurt the little girl, and finally the nightmarish court hearing, the result of which seemed to run counter to all reason. Had a journalist been in the hearing room would the circumstances have played out just as tragically? Maybe. Maybe not.

I’d like to think not.

Posted in DCFS, Foster Care | 2 Comments »

2 Responses

  1. jholderbaum Says:

    I would like to commend Judge Nash for opening the Court to the press and public. It’s a good start and we need more like him. But, ultimately, the only way to ensure that cases are handled properly will be by changing the way child protection works. For decades, the vast majority of child welfare cases have been based on accusation and suspicion alone with no forensic evidence to back them up. This fact, along with the matching federal dollars provided to counties for every child taken, has led to a practice of something I call, “The harvesting of the children of the poor for profit.” Without appropriate and objective oversight, many of those working for child protection gradually shifted from protecting genuinely abused and orphaned children to taking children on speculation alone, a practice known as prevention. While prevention, or erring on the side of the child, may seem like a good idea in theory, the reality is that it has resulted in children being taken into protective custody, who never needed protection. These innocent children have been sexually abused, neglected, drugged, used in servitude, brutalized and murdered, in foster and adoptive homes that are unsafe because the system is overburdened and underfunded. Take away the overburdened part of the equation and the underfunding will correct itself. In fact, if we end the practice of taking children on the basis of prevention, or mere suspicion and accusation, and reserve child protection for genuine cases of abuse, or the rare case of children who have been orphaned, the system could be downsized to a fraction of what it is today. Of course, that would result in a very large number of those who earn their living in the child abuse industry losing their jobs. But, in truth, who is more important in this industry, the children or those employed by it? If you want to see scientific statistics on child abuse, look no further than the criminal cases. Those numbers reflect an accurate picture of child abuse in this country. They also show very clearly that we don’t need the existing system of child protection to cope with the problem of child abuse. Prevention can be handled in other, much more effective and compassionate ways that involve neither separating children from their families, nor drugging children or gambling with their safety. Programs that offer counseling, substance abuse treatment, job skills training, job placement, affordable housing, affordable daycare, continuing education, love, compassion and support would be a much better way of helping families in need than the violent, coercive methods currently being shoved down the throats of families. It’s worth a try. Anything is better than the existing system.

  2. jholderbaum Says:

    If you really want to help people, offer help, don’t order it.

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