As he had promised, Presiding Judge Michael Nash has ordered the Juvenile Courts opened for Los Angeles, California’s juvenile courts, according to the L.A. Times’ L.A. judge orders Juvenile Court opened to press. The move has not gone without criticism and now the Children’s Law Center has filed a law suit over it according to the L.A. Times’ Group sues over L.A. judge’s decision to open juvenile courts.
I believe reasonable people can disagree on where the balance should tip in favor of the public’s right to know about what happens in juvenile court and foster youth’s desire to have their cases heard confidentially. However, the forces behind the movement to keep the juvenile courts closed- – held in secret outside the purview of the press and the public – – are not solely interested in protecting kids’ privacy
In the United States, there is no fundamental right of anyone to have their court case heard in secret. Some people may believe that they should advocate for confidentiality for foster youth in these cases because of a desire to protect children. This comes from an altruistic place, however, the juvenile courts have tried this experiment. The result has led to adult actors in the juvenile courts- – social workers, attorneys and judges- – becoming the true beneficiaries of the benefits of secrecy. The belief that confidentiality benefits children starts with the premise that the system and its adult participants are serving children well behind closed doors. This is the first problem.
Parents don’t believe the system is working to protect their kids and reunify their families. Parents’ attorneys don’t believe the system is working. Bench officers like Judge Nash do not believe the system is working as is. Youth die in foster care and fall through the cracks, and parents don’t reunify with their kids no matter how many hoops they jump through. Social workers mistake illness and accidents for abuse or lie to courts to obtain outcomes they want. As a result, tax payers in California have paid huge judgments against their counties in civil rights and civil liability law suits (See County loses $4.9 million lawsuit challenge over lying social workers.) The system is broken.
If you start from that point of view that this system is not best serving children and families, you believe something has to change. I practice regularly in the juvenile courts. I put on a suit and go to work and fight for my clients. I know my clients, prepare them for court, prepare my cases, subpoena witnesses, investigate claims, and work with experts in preparing my clients’ cases. I file motions, call witnesses, and advocate on my clients’ behalf. I have nothing to hide if the court system was open and, even though my clients are sometimes embarrassed and sad that they are part of this system, they would rather have an open court that treats them fairly and in the eye of the public rather than in secret. When you believe that open juvenile courts can lead to change in the way adult professionals conduct themselves in this system – – requiring attorneys to actually met their clients, being prepared, and advocating competently, social workers to do their jobs and tell the truth, judges to act fairly and impartially while exercising independent judgment of the case before them – – the issue is a no-brainer.
Lauren K Johnson is an expert in child abuse cases and can be reached here.