Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Foster care in Los Angeles: Opening courts in L.A. already is proving its value.

A story in today’s Los Angeles Times aptly illustrates the benefits of opening court hearings to the public in cases of alleged child abuse and neglect.  It also illustrates the one drawback – which has nothing to do with privacy.

The story appears even as the organization for lawyers who supposedly represent children in these cases is appealing the decision by Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Michael Nash to open these hearings to the press and, under some circumstances, the public.  According to the Times, the organization for lawyers supposedly representing parents plans to join the suit.

The real reason for the appeal also was illustrated in today’s story.

The story was the one that almost always appears when courts first are opened: reporters rush in to see what really goes on, and give readers their first glimpse of this reality.

The Times sent two reporters, Garrett Therolf and John Hoeffel.  Their story led with a case from the court of Judge D. Zeke Zeidler, in which a severely-abused child was not getting the help he needed.   Specifically, the caseworker from the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services hadn’t done nearly enough to find a permanent home for the child.  According to the story:

When the caseworker 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 story concludes this way:

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.

Presumably, Browning wasn’t sitting in that particular courtroom at that moment.  Presumably, he was notified of the judge’s displeasure by a reporter.

So opening courts already has made a difference:

● Because a reporter was present this time, he could let the acting director of DCFS know that there will be a public price to pay if the child doesn’t get the help he needs.  Odds are the child now will get that help.

● Next time, knowing that a reporter might be present, the caseworker is likely to do a better job of finding the right placement for a child, or whatever else is required of the worker.

● The privacy of the child was protected – no names were used. 


But there was more:

We got a first glimpse of what passes for legal representation in this court.  One judge was so clueless about how to handle open courts and the repeated objections filed by lawyers wanting their hearings closed that the whole process ground to a halt.  But Judge Zeidler handled everything with aplomb.

Even more revealing:

It wasn’t just the lawyers supposedly representing children who were objecting.  So were the lawyers who supposedly represent parents – even though the Los Angeles grassroots group advocating for families whose children have been taken, DCFS-Give Us Back Our Children – has been outspoken in its support for open courts.

Worse, some of the parents’ lawyers objecting to open hearings didn’t bother to check with their clients first.  Why?  According to their boss, they were just too “freaked out” by the thought of the general public finding out what they do and how they do it.  According to the Times:

"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."

What does it tell you about the general quality of family representation in Los Angeles County that the chief lawyer actually had to explain to his staff that it’s generally a good idea to ask their clients what they want before purporting to speak to them – and still, they didn’t always do it?


By the way, I’ve seen no news account from any other state that has opened these courts in which the attorneys were similarly “freaked.”  On the contrary, it was no problem in places like Minnesota and New York City, and it’s still no problem.  In fact, all over the country, no state that has opened these hearings has closed them again, and one-time opponents have become converts.  Yet the groups now suing or preparing to sue to close courts in Los Angeles apparently never consulted with their New York counterparts – or simply didn’t care about the reality of open courts.

There is a possible explanation for this:

This isn’t the first indication that the lawyers representing children in Los Angeles know that the public would be upset if it knew exactly what constitutes “representation” at these hearings. As attorney Edward Opton pointed out in a letter to judge Nash, the description of what they do and how they do it, in the memo sent to the judge by the children’s lawyers opposing his order is, in itself, remarkably damning.

All this suggests the real reason why the lawyers for children (and reportedly, soon, the lawyers for parents) are trying to close the courts again.  They don’t want people to see the quality of their work.  In particular, I suspect they fear a repeat of what happened in Santa Clara County. 

After the San Jose Mercury News won rare, temporary access to courts in Santa Clara County as part of a year-long investigation by reporter Karen De Sa, the newspaper’s series on the abysmal quality of representation forced the provider of defense counsel for families to completely reorganize and operate under the equivalent of what child welfare agencies might describe as a “corrective action plan.”  (The firm came within an inch of being replaced entirely, an outcome many advocates would have preferred.)


As I said at the outset, the Times story also reveals the one real drawback to opening courts: A biased reporter will filter everything through his biases.

So, with all the cases to choose from, the story in which Garrett Therolf is the lead author of course begins with one of the very rare cases in which a child was brutally abused, instead of one of the many more typical cases, often involving children who never needed to be taken from their homes.

We knew this would happen and supported opening courts in Los Angeles anyway, on the theory that the solution to the problems of journalism is more journalism and, ultimately, better reporters would set the record straight.

But Therolf’s bias also came through when he completely shut out of his story a group opposing open courts that does not have a vested interest, and therefore is the most credible.

Members of the California Youth Connection, a group made up of current and former foster youth, are terrified of the most intimate details of their lives becoming public.  Their opposition killed legislation to open these hearings statewide.

So 19-year-old Lucias Bouge, who had been through at least 40 separate placements in the six years after his grandmother died, told a reporter about how at school, he never told anyone he did not live with his parents – and how we would not have wanted classmates to find out because of a public court hearing.

The fact that what CYC fears simply has not happened in state after state where these hearings are open has not been enough to overcome that fear.   The fact that the Times used no names in the one case it describes in detail today probably won’t allay those fears either.  No wonder.  If there is one group that has good reason not to trust anything told them by an adult it is current and former foster youth.

But the fact is, if Bouge gets his wish and the courts are closed again, all he will accomplish is to make it more likely that more children among the next generation of foster youth will have to endure exactly what he did.

I wish CYC had examined other states before giving in to its fears, something discussed in detail in these posts to this Blog.  But the fact that I, and Garrett Therolf, disagree with CYC is no reason to shut them out of the story.

We know about Bouge’s concerns because Hoeffel wrote about them for the Times’ LA Now Blog.  Similarly, last year, when CYC came out against opening courts statewide, it was almost certainly disappointing to Karen De Sa at the Mercury News.  But she gave their side of the story a full and fair airing, and the Mercury News put it on the front page.

But in the Los Angeles Times story that made the print edition today, with Therolf as the lead author, CYC was shut out.

I think Louis Bouge is wrong.  But Los Angeles Times readers, even those who read the paper the old-fashioned way, in print, had a right to “hear” Bouge and decide for themselves.  Garrett Therolf denied them that right – just as he has denied them the right to hear from the families needlessly torn apart by DCFS.

Open courts will give better reporters a chance to tell the whole story.