Why this decision by a children’s judge called for order in the court

A while back I asked a trusted advisor what would be the most effective  way to influence the child welfare system, he responded by saying that I should get involved in the judicial system where so many decisions are made regarding children in the State’s care. It was good advice and, as a result, I have begun to pay more attention to the court’s role in determining the services provided to the children and youth for whom we care.

This past week the efforts to establish a more open court room environment by the presiding judge of the Los Angeles County Juvenile Court, Michael Nash, was thwarted by a decision from the California appeals court to bar the press from covering juvenile dependency court hearings.

The fact that few journalists took advantage of Judge Nash’s open court is a mute point. His intent was to introduce another level of accountability into the judicial process and the child welfare system to observe total transparency. Given the convoluted nature of both systems such a dramatic approach would seem warranted. As laudable as Judge Nash’s effort were, the ruling to bar the press from such proceedings seems prudent. This judicial reversal should in no way diminish Judge Nash’s extraordinary legacy of advocacy. Without some effective measures of accountability the courts and child welfare system go unchecked in their well-intended, but often misguided efforts to serve the best interests of children and youth.

I agree with the California appeal court’s ruling and would suggest that we need to find another way to hold the child welfare system accountable other than to introduce reporters into the court room. Perhaps what might be more effective is the development of public advocates whose sole purpose would be to assure that not only children’s rights are safeguarded, but that blatant inadequacies of the child welfare system are exposed. The mandated presence of such advocates in the court room may very well create the kind of transparency that Judge Nash so daringly introduced.

For the youth that appear in Juvenile Dependency Court, over exposure is a way of life fueled by their personal “entries” into social media mechanisms. The last thing any one of these vulnerable children need is a reporter using their case as justification for an exposé. While such cases may serve to concretize a particular point of view it does so while revealing the darker side of their stories. Such exposure can negatively define a person for life and, if nothing else, can be a source of embarrassment and shame. Often those we serve at Youth Moving On, a program for youth transitioning out of the foster care system, are held back from attaining meaningful employment because of youthful indiscretions that have become part of their public record. While seeking transparency and accountability, we must not forget that lives can be significantly jeopardized by unwanted and gratuitous exposure.

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