Social workers and lawyers crowd into a courtroom that is closed to the public and decide the fate of an abused or neglected child. This foster parent or that one? Separated from siblings or together? In contact with parents or cut off? The notion that a dependency court judge would listen to these arguments and make decisions about the child's life without allowing the child to speak -- perhaps without even allowing the child in the room -- is absurd.
In Los Angeles County, children are entitled to be seen and heard before adults make decisions that will change their lives. But it doesn't work that way in a majority of California's 58 counties. In most of the state, foster children aren't even given notice of hearings held to determine where or with whom they will live. And the Legislature did something about it. By unanimous votes in the Assembly and Senate, lawmakers approved the no-brainer AB 3051 by Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento) to allow children 10 and older the chance to appear and speak at hearings.
All that remains is for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign it. It would build on his legacy of reform that, in the last five years, has greatly improved the lot of children for whom the state has become the de facto parent. Most of those bills have come from Assemblyman Bill Maze (R-Visalia) and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), but the governor has been a central player. This week, he signed two more bills to cut the senseless red tape that has long hindered foster children from getting the information and support they need.
Schwarzenegger's Finance Department is reviewing the Jones bill and is reportedly concerned about costs associated with the few minutes it takes a social worker to contact a child and escort him or her into the courtroom, or the cost of postponing a hearing when the judge realizes that the child was never informed. That concern sounds suspiciously like the sort of bureaucratic nonsense the governor has done such a good job of clearing from foster kids' paths.
Even if there turns out to be some minor costs associated with giving foster children the most basic right to be present at their hearings, those costs obviously would be outweighed by the expense of deciding a child's fate without basic information and making the wrong decision. Governor, keep up the momentum on foster care reform. Sign the bill.