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Opening Dependency Court’s Doors

March 12, 2012
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For the first time, the public will know what is going on in the historically closed-door dependency court hearings in Los Angeles. These hearings, which can be emotionally charged, are where judges, lawyers and social workers make tough choices about custody for the community's most vulnerable, young and often troubled and abused members.

The controversial move to allow news reporters, but not cameras or most citizens, into the courtroom is supported by Los Angeles Superior Court Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash, who volunteered the court for a four-year pilot program that will be held in three counties. The state's judiciary and some state lawmakers, as well as journalism groups, laud the opening of the proceedings, believing that doing so will improve accountability and transparency.

"There is a lot that is not good [in the dependency courts], and that's an understatement," Nash said at an oversight hearing before the Assembly Judiciary Committee in Sacramento, according to the L.A. Times. "Too many families do not get reunified ... too many children and families languish in the system for far too long. Someone might want to know why this is the case."

However, some social workers and dependency court lawyers oppose opening the proceedings, citing privacy concerns for children who are already suffering. "The court has put the needs and interests of the public and the media ahead of the victims of child abuse and neglect," Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children's Law Center, told reporters. "A judicial system that fails to respect the privacy and dignity of the children it claims to serve has lost sight of its mission."

In California, judges can admit people to the courtroom deemed to have a direct or legitimate interest in the case or the court's work. Now, the cases will be presumptively open to the public unless a judge finds that admitting the public would not be in a child's best interests. Lawyers can object to audience members on behalf of clients.

Additional Reading:

Literature Review: Open Juvenile Dependency Courts (San Diego State University School of Social Work)

Op-Ed: Open children's court? Why? (L.A. Times)

L.A. County's Youngest Have Big Representation in Child Welfare System (Monday Morning Report)

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