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Group sues over L.A. judge's decision to open juvenile courts

February 7, 2012 |  2:50 pm

Michael Nash is the presiding judge of the Juvenile Court in Los Angeles County, the largest such system in the nation. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

The Children’s Law Center, which represents children in juvenile dependency proceedings in Los Angeles County, filed a legal action in a state appeals court seeking to overturn a judge’s decision to allow the media to attend courtroom hearings unless an objection is made

The filing contests an order from Judge Michael Nash and argues that his decision conflicts with state law and exceeds his authority. It asks the 2nd District Court of Appeal to issue an immediate stay and vacate the order, contending that it converts proceedings from presumptively closed to open and violates the rights of children to confidential proceedings.

Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, said Nash’s ruling turns the law on its head. “The court has put the needs and interests of the public and the media ahead of the victims of child abuse and neglect,” she said at a news conference Tuesday outside the appellate court in downtown Los Angeles. “A judicial system that fails to respect the privacy and dignity of the children it claims to serve has lost sight of its mission.”

Juvenile Court judges have always been allowed to open proceedings if the media makes a compelling argument that it is in the public interest, but the media almost never prevail. Nash’s Jan. 31 order opens dependency proceedings to the media unless the parties in the case make a persuasive argument that it is not in the best interests of the children involved. Nash said he believes the court’s secrecy has allowed problems to fester outside the public’s view.

But Heimov, whose nonprofit public interest organization represents about 25,000 children in the county, said, “This shift in presumption creates an unacceptable burden of proof.”

Heimov said in the fast-moving chaos that is the county’s juvenile courts, lawyers who are dealing with eight to 10 clients on a given day cannot be expected to notice reporters in the courtroom and present arguments on why they should be excluded. She also said Nash, the presiding judge, had not established any procedures to implement his decision.

“The order as it’s drafted is impossible to implement in any rational way,” she said. “So there’s that level of day-to-day burden that we’re already experiencing.

The court-appointed law firm that represents parents in the county’s child welfare system is also expected to file a legal action in state appellate court.

The news conference was organized by California Youth Connection, which works to improve the foster care system. A handful of supporters, including members of the Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents social workers, held handwritten signs with such messages as: “My story shouldn’t be your Facebook Newsfeed,” “Nothing About Us Without Us” and “Let me decide when to talk about my neglect or abuse.”

Lucias Bouge, a 19-year-old former foster child, argued that the judge’s order would subject children who are already victims to added trauma and humiliation.

“Because of Judge Nash, youth like us and children all over L.A. County who are already dealing with painful consequences of neglect and abuse have the burden of proving why the most intimate details of our lives should be kept private,” he said. “It’s no great stretch to see how easily and quickly embarrassing details of our lives can get out and spread like wildfire.”

Bouge said he cycled through about 30 foster homes and 10 placements in group homes, rehab facilities and juvenile halls for six years after his grandmother died when he was 12. In school, he never told anyone he did not live with his parents. He kept his story to himself.

Now, working three jobs, taking college classes and planning a career helping at-risk youth, Bouge talks openly about his painful childhood. But he said making it public is a choice he should make, not one a court should presume to make for him.

“My story is my story, and it is something I had to come to terms with, and I did it on my own time. That is a right that I should get to keep, right?” he said. “We as foster youth get little control as it is, and now we get our privacy taken away like it’s nothing.”

Bouge, who volunteers with California Youth Connection, said he had scheduled a meeting with Nash in November, but the judge canceled it. He said he was heartbroken.

“We get one of our basic rights as human beings taken away because a man puts a robe on and all of a sudden he knows what we as foster youth need,” he said. “When it came down to it, it was proven that our voices didn’t matter.”

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-- John Hoeffel

Photo: Michael Nash is the presiding judge of the Juvenile Court in Los Angeles County, the largest such system in the nation. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

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