UPDATE, March 30, 2012: Pressure is mounting on Sacramento County Juvenile Dependency Court to release confidential records in the case of 22 month old Dwight Stallings, who has not been seen for 11 months despite being in the care of Sacramento County Child Protective Services (CPS).
The Sacramento Bee is reporting that his mother, Tanisha Edwards, was ordered released from custody by the Juvenile Dependency Courts on June 8 of last year with her child still missing; the Bee is challenging the courts to obtain those records, arguing that Edwards is not a minor and therefore not protected by the confidentiality shield that allows juvenile dependency courts to keep the hearings secret. Opening the records may shed some light on the chronic failure of social workers to locate Dwight's whereabouts, and the critical decisions made during the juvenile dependency hearings.
The timeline of the case in a nutshell:
On April 20, 2011, CPS, after realizing Dwight was missing, requested a warrant from the Juvenile Court for Edward's arrest; it was issued on May 26, and Edwards, who was arrested on June 4, was released by Juvenile courts on June 8, despite the fact no one had seen Dwight since April. On August 19, when Edwards failed to produce Dwight, a bench warrant was issued, after which time, CPS made no further efforts to find Edwards with the Sheriff and neither was a missing persons report filed. It was not until CPS contacted Elk Grove police, where Edwards had lived previously with her mother, on March 19, 2012 that an all-out effort was made to locate the Edwards by both Elk Grove police department and the Sherriff; Edwards was eventually arrested on March 22.
Previously reported on the opening the Los Angeles Juvenile Dependency Courts:
UPDATE, March 6, 2012: The much criticized opening of the Los Angeles Juvenile Dependency courts to the media last month, on the order of Supervising Judge Michael Nash, has provided the public with a rare look at the court proceedings involving the lives of the children and families involved in the foster care system.
(Above, photo of Ed Edelman Children's Court, editorialized by WitnessLA (Celeste Fremon), a site that consistently has the best coverage of this issue.)
Stevenson ran a tight ship ...sometimes struggling to keep his cool as he tried to bring order to a room that included biological parents, relatives, witnesses, clerks, a bailiff and about eight attorneys who rotated among the different cases.
Stevenson became most upset when Los Angeles Dependency Lawyers (LADL) attorney Kyle Puro did not realize he was sitting next to his client, who was the father of a 15-year-old boy.
Stevenson also reprimanded Puro, who is a publicly funded attorney assigned to the case, for not having his client's file on hand. By the time the file arrived, the boy's father had already left. The hearing never happened.....Stevenson also ordered a social worker to attend a sanction meeting after the worker failed to file paperwork on time for a hearing.The worker called in and reported having a "family emergency," but Stevenson didn't buy it. If the social worker couldn't come up with a better reason at the sanction hearing, Stevenson has the right to fine the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) up to $1,500.
During the hearings, Stevenson took time to ask each child how he or she was doing in school and how each child was feeling.
LADL Supervising attorney Marlene Furth [said]..."There was just this level of tension," she said of a reporter being in the courtroom. "Everyone is like, `The press is watching. The press is watching."'....
UPDATE, February 3, 2012: As promised last fall, Los Angeles County's Juvenile Court presiding judge, Michael Nash issued an order on Tuesday opening court proceedings to "media coverage regularly, with certain exceptions intended to protect the interests of children," as reported by Garrett Therolf in the Los Angeles Times [emphases ours].
...Nash's ruling applies to the dependency side of Juvenile Court, which largely means child abuse, foster care and adoption proceedings. The order does not apply to the delinquency side, which handles crimes committed by children.
Under state law, Juvenile Court judges have always been able to open a proceeding if a news organization makes a persuasive argument for it. But the media virtually never prevail.
Nash's order shifts the burden of proof from news organizations to the parties involved in the proceedings. A Juvenile Court proceeding will now be open to reporters unless a compelling case is made to close it in the best interest of the child or children involved.
The burden of proof does not shift for members of the public, however. For them, proceedings will be closed if an objection is raised — unless they demonstrate a legitimate interest in attending or are present at the request of the child or the child's attorney.
Previously reported here on this topic:
An editorial in Sunday's Los Angeles Times called for opening dependency courts, where "cases of child abuse and neglect are heard," to the public:
It is natural to want to protect the privacy of children, and no system should be cavalier about their interests. But reversing the presumption of secrecy in these proceedings would not endanger children or expose them to harmful publicity. Just as judges today have the power to open proceedings when the public interest demands it, they would have the authority under the new system to shut hearings when the child's interests compelled it.
Meanwhile, openness would subject others in the system to scrutiny. The actions — or inaction — of social workers would be matters of public debate; decisions about whether to pull children out of their homes or to leave them with their families would be reviewable. Serious philosophical and practical differences about the county's foster care system would be opened for public consideration: Does DCFS remove too many children from their homes when there are allegations of abuse? Does it leave too many in the hands of abusive parents or reunite them too quickly? Those are hard questions to answer even with full information; under the current rules, they are even harder to debate because the basic facts are hidden.
The Times points out that professionals in the field are supporting legislation to open dependency courts, including the Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS), which has been the focus of investigatory articles by the Times over the last two years.
... DCFS itself is now recommending open hearings, which it says "will provide greater transparency and result in a better understanding of child protective services, encourage necessary reforms and strengthen community partnerships essential to improving the safety of children from abuse and neglect." The Board of Supervisors has endorsed that language and is preparing to lobby for a bill in Sacramento that would open hearings. Similar bills by former state Sen. Adam Schiff and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg failed, but DCFS' support means that much of the earlier opposition has melted away....
... Once dependency courts have been opened by state law, the next step should be to open records as well. As with hearings, they could be withheld at the discretion of a judge, but records of the public work of public employees should be released unless there is a compelling reason for privacy.
Among the most fervent advocates of transparency is Michael Nash, the presiding judge of Los Angeles County Juvenile Court. He backed the efforts of Schiff and Steinberg and has urged the Legislature to finally adopt legislation to open dependency proceedings. He's done that even though one group that would be more closely watched if hearings were open is judges.