LA Times reporters Garrett Therolf and John Hoeffel experience their first visit inside LA County’s main children’s court, a territory previously forbidden to reporters—until, after much deliberation and controversy, Children’s Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash ordered the courtsto be open to the media, except in cases when a judge finds that it would be harmful to the child involved. Nash’s judicial order that is still being fought by advocacy groups.
Here’s how Therolf and Hoeffel’s report opens:
Just days into an unprecedented effort to open Los Angeles County children’s courts to the press, Judge D. Zeke Zeidler weighed the case of a young boy whose abuse injuries raised concerns that he might never be able to run again and have confined him to a medical facility for many months.
In a hearing Tuesday at Edelman Children’s Court in Monterey Park — the sort of proceeding almost never viewed by the media or outsiders prior to an order handed down last week — the boy’s lawyer reported that since being taken from his parents, the youngster has made remarkable progress. He’d earned a reputation for being a “miracle child” who would someday “play like other kids,” the lawyer told the court.
Zeidler then turned his attention to the boy’s social worker, who was ordered last April to search simultaneously for a relative and a potential adoptive parent to provide a permanent home. When the case worker described her limited efforts to comply with the order, the jurist delivered a stern rebuke.
“You as the government have chosen to become vested with this child” by removing him from his home, Zeidler said. “But the court does not find that the department has provided sufficient services.”
The exchange offered a highly unusual — and controversial — view into courtrooms filled with stuffed animals, coloring books and posters for children’s movies. Children’s court is an insular judicial world that has been criticized by parents for too often trampling their rights and by children’s advocates for inadequately protecting young people at risk from potentially harmful living situations.
It seems that although things went smoothly in Judge Zeigler’s courtroom, in the courtrooms of some of the other judge’s in the building, various forms of freakouts ensued the moment that the reporters tried to enter. Interestingly, some of the lawyers doing the most freaking out, had not bothered to ask their clients if they minded having reporters in the court or not.
I happen to know that, prior to Judge Nash’s recent ruling, Judge Zeigler once had at least one other reporter in his courtroom: ME.
This occurred in 2004, when the parents I was following for a year long series called An American Family (published in the LA Weekly) wound up in children’s court when their kids were taken away by DCFS after the police raided their house in search of drugs. Both parents requested that I be present in the court, and their attorneys went along with it. After much discussion, Judge Zeigler consented. I was allowed in as “friend” and observer, but was not allowed to write anything that I witnessed directly. (I was, however, able to write about what the parents told me later after they were no longer in court—a technical loophole that I navigated very, very carefully. The resulting chapters in the series may be found here and here.)
I recall Judge Zeigler as being an unusually smart and fair-minded jurist.
Reading Therolf and Hoeffel’s account of Zeigler’s calm handling of the matter of their presence, I wondered if he remembered those hearings and me all these years later— how once before he let a reporter into his court, but that no children were harmed as a consequence. And the sky didn’t fall.
In any case, be sure to read the whole LA Times story, as it’s an informative tale well told.