There are few things messier and more depressing than dependency court, where judges look at issues of child abuse and neglect and make decisions that can remove children from their homes and tear families asunder.
These courts and the entire children and family services systems are plagued by controversy and allegations of mismanagement and corruption. In few areas of American life do government officials have so much unchecked power, yet are allowed to operate in nearly complete secrecy. Maybe there’s a connection there.
No reforms or inquiries ever fix the situation, which is no surprise because the public doesn’t get to look at the inner workings of these agencies or delve into the details of specific cases. Los Angeles County has been a particular mess, where more than 70 children have died under the supervision of county social workers since 2008, and many of those deaths have been blamed by county leaders on mismanagement.
But in that county a judge is turning to a time-tested solution: transparency. Last week Children’s Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash ordered the courts to be open unless a judge rules otherwise in a specific case. Of course, the social workers are complaining bitterly that this will harm children. One typical response from a “children’s advocate” quoted in a Los Angeles Times story: “The court has put the needs and interests of the public and the media ahead of the victims of child abuse and neglect. A judicial system that fails to respect the privacy and dignity of the children it claims to serve has lost sight of its mission.”
If that’s the case, then totalitarian societies function best because judicial systems in those countries don’t worry about openness. Media and public scrutiny are the key ways that free citizens assure that their government is operating in a proper manner. If court decisions are not scrutinized, then even the most grievous corruption and abuses are never exposed. They fester. Nothing improves. We’re left simply trusting officials to do what they choose.
The Times article featured a photograph of a child holding a sign that said, “Let me decide when to talk about my neglect and abuse.” I doubt the child brought the sign without prompting from the social workers. Here’s another case of how government officials are using the children as pawns to promote their agenda. Sorry, but children and families—not to mention taxpayers—are best served when we are free to oversee the overseers.
Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) had proposed legislation that would have created a small pilot program to open some dependency courts to the public. Even this watered-down version went nowhere because of the power of those who believe that society functions best when government officials can behave as they please without any serious scrutiny.
It’s so frustrating how every serious policy issue in this state is driven by what’s best for government employees, not the public. In support of the Feuer bill, the San Jose Mercury News opined: “Three years ago, Mercury News reporter Karen de Sá documented the troubled state of this system. Her yearlong investigation found that overwhelmed, undertrained lawyers weren't properly representing their clients, that older children were too often excluded from proceedings affecting their lives, and that parents' and children's rights were routinely at risk.”
That’s exactly right. And, according to the Times report, Nash argued: “There is a lot that is not good [in the dependency courts], and that’s an understatement. 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.”
Yet Nash’s thinking is treated as something that’s almost radical. The simple and humane reform he imposed in his courtroom is being challenged in court by the same self-interested parties that have stopped reform in the Capitol. Openness is the rule in 17 states, so this isn’t some uncharted territory.
Over the years, I’ve written about children’s services cases. You’ve never met a terrified person until you talk to someone who had their children taken by social workers who—under current law—can take the kids first and sort through the issues later. While the kids languish in foster care, the parents deplete their life savings trying to navigate a legal system that doesn’t give them due process or any legal rights to visit their children.
We know that bureaucratic governmental systems are never efficient or just, so it’s common to see both extremes—children taken unjustly from loving homes and children left in genuinely abusive and dangerous homes, where they often end up dying. Oftentimes, the foster homes where government places children are the most uncaring and even dangerous places.
Whenever I write about these situations, social workers will insist that most of them are hard-working and dedicated to helping children. Fair enough. Then they have nothing to fear by having their decisions scrutinized in the same open manner that other court decisions are scrutinized. As in any agency, some social workers abuse their authority, which reminds us of the need for accountability and oversight.
Last April, as the Orange County Register reported, “The County of Orange lost its battle in the U.S. Supreme Court … to overturn a record-setting $4.9 million judgment awarded to a Seal Beach woman, after two county social workers lied to a juvenile court commissioner in order to take away the woman’s two daughters.” This was a troubling case, yet the county circled its wagons.
I have written about other cases where social workers were accused of lying or misbehavior and it was impossible to get to the heart of the matter because everything is secret. We’ll never improve these systems until the light of day shines on every courtroom.
Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.