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Television Review

Looking After 'Children of the Court'

A Discovery Channel documentary tracks youths through Los Angeles' overloaded oversight system.

July 12, 2002|SCOTT SANDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sometimes, it takes a legal system to raise a child.

That is one of the saddest commentaries on the state of society in the U.S., and especially Los Angeles, as demonstrated by "Children of the Court," tonight at 8 on the Discovery Channel.

But it's happening underneath our noses in mind-reeling numbers: There are more than 50,000 children under the jurisdiction of the L.A. County Dependency Court, a branch of the Superior Court.

These kids have committed no crime; instead, they were unlucky enough to be born to parents who have abandoned, abused or neglected them to the point that authorities intervene.

They are youths such as Rocky, a 14-year-old boy and one of three children profiled on tonight's hourlong documentary. He came to the court's attention at age 10 1/2, when a doughnut shop owner noticed him loitering. His mother had never sent him to school, so he hadn't learned to read or write. After she'd abandoned him, he says, he didn't know where he was from or what his birthday was.

Or they could be youngsters such as Rolonda, 17, who was taken away because authorities said her mother was abusing drugs. Her aunt began raising her, but the aunt died. She bounced around from relative to relative, landing eventually in a foster family. All was going as well as could be expected, until she was diagnosed with cancer. Then she was removed from her foster family at one point because it didn't have the special license required to raise a seriously ill child.

Or they could be like young Dakota, whose mother's boyfriend glued his lips together to shut him up, according to Lila Barrios, the aunt who adopted him.

Shot in a spartan, almost amateurish style, "Children of the Court" begins a bit tediously. But five minutes into the program, the heartbreaking individual stories emerge, through the words of the children and those left to protect their interests--judges, lawyers, foster parents and volunteer court-appointed special advocates known as CASAs.

The film, directed by Chuck Braverman, goes inside courtrooms to reveal the wrenching but hopeful decisions being made in a hopelessly overloaded system.

"What's important is that he feels that he has a future," Dependency Court Referee Sherri Sobel says of Rocky.

"That's the only thing that's important, that he knows there are people who care about him, that we care about him here, that his CASA cares about him, his lawyer cares about him. And it may not be the same thing as having parents who care about him, but it's the next best thing."

"Children of the Court" will be shown tonight at 8 and repeated at 11 on the Discovery Channel.

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