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Foster children protest public juvenile dependency hearings

Long-time juvenile court judge proposes the change to improve accountability.

November 21, 2011|By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times

Dozens of foster children and attorneys protested Monday outside Los Angeles County's Edelman Children's Court in opposition to the proposed opening of juvenile dependency hearings to the public.

Currently, members of the media and public are barred from entering dependency courtrooms without court permission. But Judge Michael Nash proposed a blanket order this month that would make the hearings open unless someone objects and a judge decides to close the proceeding.

Lucias Bouge, a 19-year-old former foster youth opposed to Nash's proposal, said: "Kids laughed at me because of the way I talked, because my family was poor and because I was different from everybody else. Now imagine my classmates seeing my family life blasted in the morning paper. The torment I would have endured would have been traumatizing."

Dependency courts: An article in the Nov. 22 LATExtra section about a proposal to open dependency courts to the public described L.A. Youth as a newspaper published by foster youth. It is a newspaper published by a nonprofit organization featuring stories written by foster youths. —

Nash, who is one of the state's longest-serving child welfare officials and has presided over Los Angeles County's juvenile court for more than two decades, has testified that open courts would improve accountability and transparency. Under his proposed order, the courtroom could be closed if a judge believed it to be in the best interest of the child, but it would not be closed for the benefit of a social worker or other parties.

Leslie Starr Heimov, executive director of the court-appointed law firm that represents foster youth, joined the protest and said her office will file a legal challenge if a proposal to open hearings on child protection and placement issues goes into effect.

"We are exploring our options," she said. "We are not going to wait until a child is hurt."

Heimov said foster youth had not been formally polled before reaching her decision to oppose the proposal, but she said the decision was based on an informal survey of attorneys in her firm. She acknowledged that some of her clients supported the opening of the courts and pledged to aid them in that effort on a case-by-case basis under current rules.

The proposal to open courts has deeply divided child welfare advocates. Nash's position is supported by a number of nonprofit law firms working on behalf of foster youth, as well as L.A. Youth, a newspaper published by foster youth. It is opposed by the union representing social workers and the California Youth Connection, an organization of former foster youth.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has previously supported legislation to open courts, but one of the board's senior child welfare attorneys, Christine Kouri, attended the protest Monday and made a point of introducing a former foster youth opposed to Nash's order to a Times reporter covering the event.

Kouri later said she was only an observer, and a spokesman for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said her involvement was not at the direction of the board.

Yaroslavsky's spokesman, Joel Bellman, said the board has decided not to involve itself in the debate.

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