California Child Welfare Hearings Ignite Controversy And Debate

Michael Nash, chief presiding judge of Los Angeles County’s children’s court, ruled earlier this year that all children’s court hearings must be open to the public–a ruling that has proven to be divisive. Kelli Kennedy of the Associated Press reports:

When a child is abused or neglected, there’s a family court hearing to discuss the victim’s future. In nearly 20 states, including Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois, those hearings are usually open to the public and there is a push among child welfare advocates to open them in other states. Efforts to open the courts in California, Kentucky and the District of Columbia have garnered attention recently.

“Confidentiality has done more to protect the system than to protect the children in the system,” said Michael Nash…He ruled in January that dependency hearings in his county will be open to the public unless there is proof the child will be harmed.

Those in favor of the change echo Nash’s argument that transparency exposes the mistakes of child welfare systems and judges, such as allowing children to be left in dangerous biological or foster homes. By preventing the use of confidentiality rules to hide errors in judgment, the hope is that a more accountable system would be the end result.

However, some argue that this ignores the negative impact the change could have on children who are the subject of the hearings. The Children’s Law Center of California–which recently failed in an attempt to overturn Nash’s ruling–maintains that open hearings expose children to further trauma by forcing them to testify about abuse and neglect to a room full of strangers:

“It’s difficult and it’s painful and they’re in the system through no fault of their own and to create a system where there’s forced to endure more pain, that’s harmful,” [The Children’s Law Center of California] Executive Director Leslie Starr Heimov said.

Legal experts aren’t the only ones weighing in on this contentious issue. Individuals affected by California’s child welfare system are stepping forward to make their opinions heard:

Activist Gail Helms has fought for open courts in California since her 2-year-old grandson Lance was beaten to death by his father in 1995, shortly after the man was awarded custody despite a history of drug use.

“They need to have someone in there to monitor and see what goes on in those courtrooms,” said Helms.

Helms says that an open court system would have exposed holes in the child welfare system that she feels contributed to her grandson’s murder. However, her view differs from at least one former California foster youth. Michael Bowen Dural, 24, feels that open hearings don’t directly address problems, such as social workers burdened by unmanageable case loads. He also worries about the privacy of children in the system and whether open hearings sufficiently take that concern into account:

“The laws should include you in deciding whether you want it open or not because every foster kid is at a different point in their life and at a different comfort level with some of the things that are discussed in court.”

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