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Keep juvenile dependency courts closed

Op-Ed

Automatically opening juvenile dependency courts to the public would do more harm than good, says someone who has been there.

November 28, 2011|By Marcy Valenzuela
  • Michael Nash, L.A. County's presiding juvenile judge, supervises staff handling juvenile delinquency, dependency, traffic and mental health cases. He plans to institute a "blanket order" declaring that dependency courts in L.A. County be open to the public and any media, unless the affected youth can convince a judge otherwise. (Los Angeles Times)
Michael Nash, L.A. County's presiding juvenile judge, supervises…

Juvenile dependency courts exist to protect children and youths who have been neglected and abused, so it's shocking that the presiding judge who oversees the Los Angeles County Superior Court's juvenile division is pushing a plan that puts foster children and youths at risk of further harm.

If Judge Michael Nash's order stands, vulnerable children, youths and their families, who are already dealing with painful consequences of neglect and abuse, would face the additional burden of proving why the most intimate details of their lives should be kept private.

Currently, dependency courtrooms are automatically closed to the public unless a judge decides otherwise, under a law put in place to protect foster children's privacy. Many judges already use the discretion given to them to open proceedings on a case-by-case basis to people — such as family members, teachers and pastors — who have an interest in supporting the child through a difficult process and time in their lives. Media can also be granted access, which has happened throughout the state.

But the judge wants to go further. He plans to institute a "blanket order" declaring that dependency courts in L.A. County be open to the public and any media, unless the affected youth can convince a judge otherwise. Not only does the order violate current law, it also exposes children and youths to being humiliated or even traumatized all over again, harming the very people the courts are supposed to protect.

When I reentered the foster-care system at the age of 14, court was intimidating.

In court, you are asked to describe the neglect and abuse you've experienced. A judge may ask questions about your home life, family relationships, behavioral problems and medications, even sexual experiences. I was often scared or embarrassed.

Now, at 23, I am active in working to improve the foster-care system. I frequently work with young people who have suffered unspeakable neglect or abuse by the very people who are supposed to take care of them.

It's hard enough to talk to a judge or a social worker about these painful experiences. Imagine having those stories heard by complete strangers, or even perpetrators looking for their next victims.

I cringe at the thought that young people would have to risk having the most horrifying details of their lives exposed to anyone who walks into a courtroom, because I was in their shoes not long ago.

To put the burden on youths to prove that having school classmates or others learn about their neglect or abuse makes young people feel criminalized on top of everything else that's happened to them.

It's only after years of hard work that I've been able to begin talking about my experience as a foster youth, and only then because I've been able to do so on my own terms.

Media organizations will argue they want to be watchdogs and show the public what happens in courts. But how will it be determined what are legitimate media and what are not? What guarantee is there that all media, which can now include bloggers and entertainment television, will obey the court's rules?

In these days when damaging stories spread in a flash on Facebook and blogs in a flash, it's easy to see how quickly embarrassing details could spread like wildfire and be used to bully children and youths.

If young people can't be forthcoming in court because they're worried about their personal information going public, the entire process is compromised.

Having failed to persuade legislators to change the law, Nash now plans to impose his agenda to automatically open courts. What kind of message does it send to children and youths when a judge decides that if he can't change the rules, it's OK to just break them?

I understand that Nash may think he's doing what's best, but he shouldn't do that without listening to the youths who have made it clear that this is not the answer to better lives and futures for us. We put forward a reasonable alternative that still protects our privacy: Let us decide whether to opt-in to an open court pilot program. But we've been told no.

Deciding if and when to make the details of our lives public is one of the most important decisions of our lives. It's one choice we should be able to make.

Marcy Valenzuela, a former foster youth from East Los Angeles, attends community college in Southern California.

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