Opening super-secret children's court to the press will do more good than harm
By Kevin Uhrich 02/16/2012
Over many years as a reporter and editor, rarely — if ever — did I or any of my colleagues cover issues arising out of children’s court, whether on the dependency, delinquency or criminal side.
Unless the kids in question killed or kidnapped someone, in which case any pretense of anonymity was instantly waived by authorities bent on swift and harsh punishment, we did not write about them.
The reason: The press has literally been barred by law from covering these super-secret proceedings involving children in trouble. In fact, it wasn’t until just a few years ago — with juvenile detention centers bursting at the seams and more runaway and recently emancipated foster children than ever running wild in the streets of Los Angeles County — that a number of bloggers and journalists began paying attention to the crises occurring with these children.
In 2006, former PW Deputy Editor Joe Piasecki explored the dark and dangerous world of adopted kids in a five-part series on the lives of some of these throw-away youngsters and the foster care system itself, including its administration, which is open to the public and was then in a woeful state of disarray. In time, through personal experiences with his subjects, Joe came to clearly see the same savage and often heartless world these children lived in every waking moment of their short lives.
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.
A few weeks back, Los Angeles County Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Michael Nash partially lifted the veil of secrecy in children’s court that he said “allowed problems to fester outside of the public’s view,” according to the Los Angeles Times. “Without access to the courts,” as the Times explained, “news organizations have been forced to rely on incomplete case records released months or years after decisions were made.”
This was certainly true for Joe in his monumental investigation nearly six years ago, and it was definitely the case with the mentally disturbed mother, who kept us more apprised than any court clerk with her assiduously kept documents and notes on the proceedings against her.
As the Times story explains, Nash’s ruling only applies to the dependency side of Juvenile Court, not criminal proceedings. Too bad, because that’s one highly charged powder keg where most public attention should be directed. Nevertheless, dependency proceedings “will now be open to reporters unless a compelling case is made to close it in the best interest of the child or children involved,” according to the Times.
To be sure, Nash’s ruling isn’t going to open any floodgates of renewed interest by the mainstream press in juvenile court proceedings. But it will go miles in ensuring cases like the ones mentioned above get the kind of public attention they deserve and sometimes need.