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Pleading for Less Secrecy in Juvenile Courts

Some push to open up noncriminal hearings. Others say judges already have that discretion and fear blanket media access might hurt children.


It's standing room only most mornings in the third-floor hallways of the juvenile courthouse in Orange. Young couples, some entire families, fill benches and line the walls, looking as though they are waiting for the courtrooms to open.

But behind twin wooden doors, judges are conducting serious business, deciding what to do with children who have allegedly been neglected or abused by their parents. The proceedings are closed to the public, so only the parents and their lawyers are allowed into the courtroom, one case at a time.

It's been this way for decades. Seeking to protect the privacy of children who in some instances have suffered unspeakable abuse, California lawmakers have declared these hearings off-limits to the public without a court order.

That could soon change. Some California judges and children's advocates are pressing for legislative changes that would make it easier for the public--and the media--to attend juvenile hearings.

Though juvenile criminal proceedings would remain closed, the hearings at which judges decide what to do with abused and neglected children would be open if the groups get their way.

Efforts to change the law to allow public access to juvenile dependency hearings failed in 2000 amid heavy opposition from children's rights groups.

But proponents are now talking about reintroducing legislation or at the very least starting a pilot program that would measure the effect of opening the hearings. One powerful children's lobbying group that opposed the 2000 legislation has hosted three recent seminars to explore the issue.

Those who want to open the courtrooms say the system would work better if it operated in full public view; that social workers, lawyers and judges would perform more thoughtfully if they knew their actions could receive public scrutiny.

Across the country, several states have opened such hearings. In 1980, Oregon became the first state to make its juvenile hearings public, allowing members of the media--or anyone else who is interested--to watch as judges decide whether to take custody of children allegedly victimized by their parents.

Daniel R. Murphy, a circuit court judge in Linn County, Ore., said he has had no complaints about the open proceedings.

"I think there's a lot of benefits. The government operates better when it's under scrutiny," he said. "Other families will come in and watch what happens to the families before them, and it gives them a sense of what to expect. It's not a mystery to them. And a lot of the scary stories they may have heard are dispelled when they see another family go through a process that's not intimidating."

Opponents of open proceedings argue that media exposure would further harm children recovering from physical and emotional wounds.

"These kids have been victimized once; I don't want them to be victimized again," said Alan Watahara, president of the California Children's Lobby.

Still, he said he might support legislation that would make it easier for the public or media to attend the hearings and noted that there have been discussions in the state about a pilot program in which Juvenile Courts in some counties would be temporarily opened to the public.

"I'm not saying, 'No, we don't want open courts.' I'm just saying we have to be very thoughtful about who, how, where and when," Watahara said.

Because of the private hearings, juvenile dependency trials are among the least publicized proceedings in the state court system.

A case moves into the system when county social workers attempt to take custody of an endangered or abused child. In many instances, there is a lawyer for each parent and a lawyer for the child while a judge decides whether to take custody of the child or return the child to his or her parents, and whether further court monitoring is necessary.

Media representatives contend that they could do a better job of reporting about the efficiency of the system if they were allowed complete access.

"It's a process that is entirely unchecked by any exposure to public scrutiny," said Terry Francke, general counsel to the California First Amendment Coalition, which supports public access to the Juvenile Courts. "I've heard stories of parents who want to take their experiences public and being told by the court they can't, and if they do, their children may suffer for it and they may have trouble seeing their children."

Critics of the proposals say that California judges already have the discretion to allow the public into juvenile proceedings and thus that a law mandating open courtrooms is unwise.

"The current rules allow the court to control the dissemination of information," said William W. Patton, a professor at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, who wrote an analysis opposing the 2000 legislation. "If we change the rules, it inverts everything."

In Santa Clara County, Judge Leonard Edwards said he routinely opens his Juvenile Court to the public. "I believe the public has a right and a need to know what goes on ... with our tax dollars and our most vulnerable children," Edwards said.

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