The presiding judge of Los Angeles County's Juvenile Court is preparing to open child dependency proceedings to the public in an effort to improve accountability and transparency in child abuse, neglect and foster care placement cases.
Currently, members of the media and the public are barred from entering dependency courtrooms without court permission. But Judge Michael Nash is proposing a blanket order that would make the hearings open unless someone objects and a judge decides to close the proceeding.
A similar effort to open juvenile courts in Sacramento failed earlier this year when some foster children and the union that represents social workers objected, citing privacy concerns. But Nash, an advocate of government transparency, believes the juvenile courts can be opened under current law.
"There is a lot that is not good [in the dependency courts], and that's an understatement," Nash said earlier this year at a Sacramento hearing on the issue. "Too many families do not get reunified.... Too many children and families languish in the system for far too long. Someone might want to know why this is the case."
Nash is soliciting opinions from interested parties by the end of the month, before making his order final.
Janis Spire, executive director of the Alliance for Children's Rights, a nonprofit law firm that works on behalf of foster children, said her organization generally supports Nash's proposal but hopes it can be adjusted to restrict release of identifying information about children, including last names and Social Security numbers.
"The intention of this order and the law is about transparency of the system and the process, never transparency when it comes to the child," she said.
Spire said she also worried that the order will not carry the same weight as state law and might be vulnerable to being overturned.
Under the terms of the proposed order, members of the public would be able to enter any dependency courtroom. If an objection is then raised, the judicial officer will decide what is in the best interest of the child.
"The court will consider such factors as the age of each child, the nature of the allegations, the extent of the present or expected publicity and its effect, if any, on the children and on family reunification," according to the proposed order.
Attendees would not be able to make audio or visual recordings of the proceedings without seeking special court permission, and case records would remain confidential unless the court orders them opened.