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And the Dependency Court Shall Lead Them . . .

September 15, 1996|Charles L. Lindner | Charles L. Lindner is a past president of the Los Angeles Criminal Bar Assn. He sat as a part-time Juvenile Court referee for eight years

The state of California possesses what lawyers call a parens patriae duty--an obligation to protect all children within the state from neglect, abuse or abandonment. This power is exercised through judges assigned to the state's Dependency Court. When parents fail, whether due to drug addiction, criminality, illness, ignorance, insanity, poverty or downright wickedness, the state, acting through the county Dpartment of Children and Family Services and the judiciary, has the duty to protect their children.

The state is doing a lousy job.

Since 1986, the number of children living in foster care has doubled. One in every four American children under age 6 lives in poverty. Handguns will kill 15 children today, as they did yesterday, and as they probably will tomorrow.

Thus, it is important to apply governmental resources where they will best protect children most at risk, which means keeping them for the minimum time necessary or finding them a stable, long-term safe environment. Instead, the county Department of Children and Family Services and the county Dependency Court reel from day to day like punch-drunk fighters, reflexively reacting to the cases that come before them.

Services' workers too quickly seize, and the courts are too fearful to terminate, jurisdiction once charges have been sustained. As a result, thousands of children under long-term court supervision do not require it, while thousands who need intervention are not receiving any.

Children on the Dependency Court assembly line are mistreated by self-serving politicians as well. When news reports broke last week of 14 children being returned to dangerous homes, it didn't take the politicians long to seize the moral high ground. Supervisor Mike Antonovich immediately called for more inspector generals to ensure that dependent children are returned to safe homes. He didn't mention that the county's budget for children's legal and social services has been radically cut.

Partly in response, Dependency Court judges have undertaken certain "efficiencies." Staggering under 60,000 open cases and 2,000 new filings each month, they have dispensed with procedures that tend to bog down the system's machinery, like adequate legal representation or the presumption of innocence.

Legal niceties remain in the law books, unread, and reading them is not promoted. The children's court has no public law library, making it the only major Superior Court building without one. On the other hand, money is not wasted, because arguing the law is discouraged in Dependency Court, which mostly follows its form, almost never its substance. Successful intervention occurs only when a judge, social worker, child and parent have frequent, significant and meaningful contact.

The central problem is that the average daily docket in the county's Dependency Court is 42 cases per judge per day or, putting it more brutally, 9 minutes per kid every six months, assuming no down time, no breaks and maximum efficiency--qualities that are not exactly hallmarks of the judicial system. It is "Rawhide" justice: "Move 'em out, head 'em up, move 'em out . . . ."

Not that long ago, how a parent raised a child was considered none of the state's business. Now the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Children are being frequently removed from parental control by a state that denies adequate resources to raise them, or sent back into homes where face more abuse.

Compounding the immediate problem is a lack of money. Before the "successful" Legislature adjourned last month, it failed to pass a trial-court funding bill. As a result, the Los Angeles Superior Court is missing half its annual budget and can't much plan farther ahead than next week's calendar.

Nor has anyone sufficiently noticed a truly perplexing ruling by Health & Human Services Director Donna Shalala. According to her, Title IV A Social Security funds cannot be used for the rehabilitation and housing of delinquent children, only dependent children. She apparently doesn't understand that she is mostly talking about the same children. Result: The L.A. County Probation Camps, statistically, the best avenue of juvenile rehabilitation for any urban center in the country--half the camp system's graduates never return to the criminal justice system--lost $44 million in federal funding.

The public is mostly unaware of the problem, but within the legal community, warning flags are clearly visible. Low-paid contract lawyers for the Dependency Court Litigation Service (DCLS) are carrying 500 open cases each. When one prominent juvenile attorney, an alturistic DCLS mainstay, complained recently to the Board of Supervisors that the quality of legal care has fallen below minimum standards, she was chastised by county administrators.

The Juvenile Court presiding judge has cut panel fees again for the few remaining assigned private lawyers (almost all dependency lawyers are court-appointed). The Juvenile Courts Bar Assn. filed a writ petition with the Court of Appeal to protest what is, in effect, a removal of a child's right to effective counsel. That the Bar Assn. sought the writ is an astonishing admission of how bad things have gotten.

Thirty-five years ago, President John F. Kennedy inveighed that "The torch has been passed to a new generation . . . ." Little could he know that we would pass it on to our kids wrong end first.

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