MIAMI – A California judge's decision to open a county's child welfare hearings earlier this year has energized a debate among advocates in other states about whether greater transparency helps or harms the young victims appearing in family court.
When a child is abused or neglected, there's a family court hearing to discuss the victim's future. In nearly 20 states, including Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois, those hearings are usually open to the public and there is a push among child welfare advocates to open them in other states. Efforts to open the courts in California, Kentucky and the District of Columbia have garnered attention recently.
Proponents say transparency leads to better decisions by putting a spotlight on judges, exposes the blunders of child welfare workers and gives the public a better understanding of how the system works.
"Confidentiality has done more to protect the system than to protect the children in the system," said Michael Nash, chief presiding judge of Los Angeles County's children's court. He ruled in January that dependency hearings in his county will be open to the public unless there is proof the child will be harmed.
The longtime advocate of open courts was frustrated that fellow judges frequently sided with those who wanted to keep the hearings closed. Nash said decisions were made on an ad hoc basis. His order lays out a uniform process to follow when someone objects to opening the hearing.
But critics say children will be further traumatized by testifying about abuse in a courtroom full of strangers. The Children's Law Center of California, which represents most children in the Los Angeles County system, asked the state appeals court to overturn Nash's decision, but that move was rejected.
Executive Director Leslie Starr Heimov says it's unfair to compare states that have open hearings with California because children don't have a legal right to attend hearings in many states. More than 200 children attend hearings every day at the Los Angeles courthouse.
"It's difficult and it's painful and they're in the system through no fault of their own and to create a system where there's forced to endure more pain, that's harmful," Heimov said.
Family courts have opened gradually since the early 1980s, beginning with Oregon. An advocate for child welfare reform says that among the states that have followed suit, New York and Missouri's moves in the late 1990s were particularly significant. The change is usually spurred by a horrific child abuse case or a push from local media to gain access. The beating death of 6-year-old Elisa Izquierdo by her mother prompted the opening of New York family courts in 1997 and the passage of a state open-records law referred to as "Elisa's Law."
But the practice can vary by county or by judge, even in states that are presumed to be open. A New York Times reporter visited local courtrooms at random last year and found that many were closed with locked doors or hostile deputies.
Still, the reverse can be true in states that are generally closed. For example, courts in Alleghany County, Pa. were opened after a news outlet fought for access, but most of the state is still closed, said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Virginia. No one has compiled national data on how counties treat the issue.
Kentucky Rep. Susan Westrom filed a bill for the third time in March that would open courts under a pilot program. The bill passed the House, but died in the Senate.
"Social workers were identified as falsifying records and lying in court, and I heard horror stories from family court judges. The lack of transparency has harmed far too many families and children in Kentucky," Westrom said.
Among several recent efforts in California was legislation proposing a pilot program to open courts in a few counties. It died in committee last year.
Activist Gail Helms has fought for open courts in California since her 2-year-old grandson Lance was beaten to death by his father in 1995, shortly after the man was awarded custody despite a history of drug use. The boy's father was sentenced to 25 years in prison for second-degree murder.
She said public court proceedings would have exposed holes in the child welfare system and put pressure on the judge to take her son's drug use and criminal history more seriously. Spurred by the case, lawmakers eventually changed state child welfare laws to make it harder for abusive parents to regain custody.
"They need to have someone in there to monitor and see what goes on in those courtrooms," said Helms, whose efforts have included protests and remarks at public forums.
Wexler said that despite some initial protest when hearings are opened, no state has reclosed them.
"In every state there are lots of people worried and upset that courts are going to be opened and then a few years later everybody forgets the courts were ever closed. The disasters that everybody worried about never happened and there is a modest uptick in attention. It's constructive," said Matt Fraidin, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia. Lawyers in Michigan, Missouri, Kansas, Oregon, and Utah told Fraidin no problems have been reported since opening courtrooms there.
But former California foster youth Michael Bowen Dural said that opening dependency court may solve some problems, but it creates others — such as compromising children's privacy. The change also doesn't affect other problems in the system such as social workers having too many cases, said Bowen Dural, who entered foster youth at birth when he was taken from his drug-addicted mother and stayed in the system until he turned 18.
"The laws should include you in deciding whether you want it open or not because every foster kid is at a different point in their life and at a different comfort level with some of the things that are discussed in court," said Dural, 24. He now works in the housing department for the L.A. County Department of Children and Family.