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Media gain access to L.A. County children's courts

Some judges and lawyers embrace the change; others object as reporters observe proceedings formerly cloaked in strict secrecy.

February 07, 2012|By Garrett Therolf and John Hoeffel, Los Angeles Times
  • Lucias Bouge, 19, a former foster youth who works with the California Youth Connection, joins a group on the steps of the 2nd District Court of Appeal in downtown, objecting to the order opening court hearings to the public and media.
Lucias Bouge, 19, a former foster youth who works with the California Youth… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

Just days into an unprecedented effort to open Los Angeles County children's courts to the press, Judge D. Zeke Zeidler weighed the case of a young boy whose abuse injuries raised concerns that he might never be able to run again and have confined him to a medical facility for many months.

In a hearing Tuesday at Edelman Children's Court in Monterey Park — the sort of proceeding almost never viewed by the media or outsiders prior to an order handed down last week — the boy's lawyer reported that since being taken from his parents, the youngster has made remarkable progress. He'd earned a reputation for being a "miracle child" who would someday "play like other kids," the lawyer told the court.

Zeidler then turned his attention to the boy's social worker, who was ordered last April to search simultaneously for a relative and a potential adoptive parent to provide a permanent home. When the case worker described her limited efforts to comply with the order, the jurist delivered a stern rebuke.

"You as the government have chosen to become vested with this child" by removing him from his home, Zeidler said. "But the court does not find that the department has provided sufficient services."

The exchange offered a highly unusual — and controversial — view into courtrooms filled with stuffed animals, coloring books and posters for children's movies. Children's court is an insular judicial world that has been criticized by parents for too often trampling their rights and by children's advocates for inadequately protecting young people at risk from potentially harmful living situations.

Children's Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash last week ordered those courtrooms to be open to the press, except in cases when a judge finds that it would be harmful to the child involved. Nash argues that openness will bring accountability to the process and that his order implements a state law allowing people with a "legitimate interest" to attend court proceedings.

Social workers at the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, elected officials and others have argued that the order overreaches and intrudes on the privacy of children who have already suffered mistreatment.

Pressing the issue Tuesday, the Children's Law Center, which represents most children in the system, asked the state appeals court to immediately overturn Nash's initiative.

The lawsuit claims Nash's directive conflicts with state law and violates the rights of children to confidential proceedings.

"The court has put the needs and interests of the public and the media ahead of the victims of child abuse and neglect," Leslie Heimov, the law center's executive director, said at a downtown news conference. "A judicial system that fails to respect the privacy and dignity of the children it claims to serve has lost sight of its mission."

Heimov said in the county's fast-moving juvenile courts, lawyers are dealing with eight to 10 clients a day and cannot be expected to notice reporters and always be prepared to argue why they should be excluded. A separate court-appointed law firm that represents parents in the county's child welfare system also is expected to appeal Nash's open-access order.

The presence of a Times reporter in courtrooms this week brought varied reactions.

Dozens of attorneys representing parents, children and the county were dispatched to the sessions. In Judge Rudolph A. Diaz's courtroom, cases virtually ground to a halt. Attorneys raised a series of objections, including challenging the reporter's presence during a discussion of the day's calendar.

Diaz postponed several hearings until the legal issues are clarified. After seeking legal briefs from the lawyers, he sent parents and children home with orders to come back another day.

By contrast, objections were quickly overruled in Zeidler's courtroom. The judge said lawyers had not demonstrated that a reporter's presence would be detrimental to the children involved. The handling of cases proceeded without delay.

"I think everyone is freaked out because this has only been in effect a couple of days," said Kenneth Krekorian, executive director of the law firm representing parents. "This is a big change for how things have historically happened."

Krekorian acknowledged that some lawyers were objecting to media presence without checking with their clients. He said he had advised his attorneys to consult with their clients before acting.

"How can you object without any direction from your client?" Zeidler asked one attorney. "Maybe he's a parent who doesn't feel he is getting adequate services, or maybe he feels his due process rights are being trampled and wants someone to know."

After Zeidler's hearing, the interim director of the county's child welfare agency said he would look into the judge's complaint about efforts to find the injured boy a permanent home. "I am always concerned when I hear that a judge is not satisfied with the efforts of a social worker," Philip Browning said.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

john.hoeffel@latimes.com

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