City Desk

Should Child Welfare Hearings Be Public?

On Feb. 3, Judith Sandalow, the executive director of the Children's Law Center, testified before the D.C. Council on the state of city's child-welfare agency. Her verdict [PDF] was brutal:

"The District's child abuse and neglect system requires dramatic reform at all stages. On the front end, the government does not adequately prevent abuse and neglect. Nor does CFSA do a good enough job keeping children safely with their birth families. Once CFSA removes children, it does not serve them well in foster care—and they state in foster care too long because CFSA fails to reunify them with their parents or find alternative permanent families."

Even more troubling than Sandalow's assessment is the fact that her assessment has been made nearly every year for the past two decades.  It is by now cliche to refer to the District's Child and Family Services Agency as "troubled" or "horrible" or "under court monitor."

In one of the latest twists in the 20-year-old class-action case against CFSA, a U.S. District Court judge recently ordered the agency to stick to a court-approved plan. The plan pretty much included everything from how the agency must investigate alleged abuses to how they should hold meetings [PDF]. That was just the latest in the drip, drip, drip, drip, drip of bad news concerning CFSA. Recently, Gray's transition team issued its own stinging critique of the agency.

Although CFSA has a court-appointed monitor, much of the agency's business—the family-court hearings, investigations, foster-care placements, etc.—are done in secret. Should District residents allow an agency like CFSA to conduct its business in secret?

California is considering opening up its child-welfare cases to public scrutiny. And one of the biggest backers of the plan is LA County's own child-welfare agency.

The L.A. Times reported this week:

"Children's advocates, judges and government officials told state legislators Tuesday that opening proceedings for dependency court would improve accountability and transparency for a key branch of the legal system that handles cases of child abuse, child neglect and foster care placements.‬

'There is a lot that is not good [in the dependency courts], and that's an understatement,' Michael Nash, presiding judge of the juvenile courts for Los Angeles County, said at an oversight hearing before the Assembly Judiciary Committee in Sacramento. 'Too many families do not get reunified ... too many children and families languish in the system for far too long. Someone might want to know why this is the case.'"

Of course, some California's social workers and public defenders are against the pending legislation citing concerns for minors and the possibility that families would be reluctant to participate if they knew the hearings were open to the public. But what family is excited to be a part of a child-welfare case? And I have yet to meet a minor who didn't want his story told or to be listened too.

The L.A. Times notes that more and more jurisdictions are opening up child-welfare cases to the public:

"The Assembly committee has a bill, AB 73, which proposes to open the dependency courts but allows judges the discretion to close certain hearings. A number of other states have moved to make their dependency courts more accessible to the public.

The proposal is supported by Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services. Deputy Director Maryam Fatemi told the committee Tuesday that increased access would shed light on systemic problems and make the public better aware of issues involved with protecting children.

Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), who introduced the bill, said that based on the comments at the hearing, he would probably introduce a bill proposing a pilot program for open court proceedings."

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