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Push for open dependency courts set for key test on Tuesday

April 25, 2011 |  4:57 pm

The push to allow public oversight of court hearings that consider foster care placements and other sensitive child welfare decisions faces a crucial test when it is reaches the state assembly’s human services committee on Tuesday.
The bill, AB73 by Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), enjoys support among many child advocates, the presiding judge of Los Angeles County children’s court and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
But the bill has also attracted the opposition of social workers whose work would regularly be available for public review for the first time, as well as the California Youth Connection, former Senate leader John Burton and the court-appointed lawyers who represent children in the Los Angeles County system.  
Leslie Starr Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, wrote in a letter to the committee that children risk a “loss of dignity associated with having one’s entire life subject to scrutiny.”
Burton said in an interview that his opposition to the bill was “visceral” and “emotional,” and he said court hearings were “already traumatizing enough without having a bunch of gawkers.”   
Under the bill, a pilot program would be established in Los Angeles, Ventura and one other county. Hearings would be presumed to be open unless a court believes it would not be in the child’s best interest. Children would be advised of their right to request closed hearings, and their wishes would receive “special consideration.”
“There is no way for us to meaningfully reform the child welfare system without first shining a light on it,” Feuer said in an interview, noting that none of the 17 states with open courts have decided to go back to closed proceedings.
“We need to hold everyone in the system accountable,” he said. “Those changes will not come easily, particularly for the adult participants.”
Previous efforts to open juvenile dependency court hearings failed in 2000 and 2004 due to concerns that open court hearings would conflict with federal confidentiality requirements and would place federal funding for foster care at risk. Federal officials have since put those fears to rest.
--Garrett Therolf