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You Tell Us: Will transparency in the juvenile courts help or hurt foster youth?

on April 7, 2011

When I entered the foster care system at the age of 12, I never knew what roles the court would play in influencing my life. It was only until I emancipated out of care that it struck me that I was a ward of the court. However, what separated me from my peers was my determination to advocate for my rights! I told my social workers and public defenders where I wanted to live and what schools I wanted to attend. I remembered appearing in court with my county social worker to inform the judge about my case. The hearing lasted less than 10 minutes and it only took 5 minutes to debrief my case. This was not my interpretation about how a court system should treat its most vulnerable youth. Supposedly, I thought, the judge, public defender and social worker would be more prepared to hear my thoughts regarding the future of my case. Evidently, that had not been the case for me; instead it was the complete opposite.

In California, the Juvenile Dependency courts preside over the lives of 58,000 foster youth statewide. Opening these courts to the public has been a key topic of discussions between California Superior Court judges and lawmakers. These discussions about opening the juvenile dependents courts follows a line of similar legislation in 2000 and 2004, which failed a vote in the Assembly.

The recently proposed Assembly Bill 73, introduced by California Assembly Member Mike Feuer, will give juvenile judges the discretion to make California juvenile court hearings open to the general public. Because of current California law, the public cannot be admitted to juvenile court hearings, with the exception of when a minor commits” felony criminal street gang activity,” according to California Welfare & Institution Code § 676 (1999). Candidly, this new idea can not be a solution to this constant problem with the juvenile dependency courts and its dependents.

From a former foster youth perspective, it will only change the unsettled emotions that youth have when dealing with the judge, social worker, and public defender in the court room. Theoretically, adding an entirely different element to the court procedure — in this case the general public — will only create an artificial solution. Yes, people will have an opportunity to get a first-hand look at juvenile court hearings, but not all youth find having an open court hearing to be helpful. After having been abused, neglected, unstable education, and or in multiple foster care placements, it’s a normal feeling to have unsettling emotions inside.

Naturally, foster youth do not take pleasure or pride in new changes and adding more people in the court system to scrutinize their every move will not best facilitate their needs. It sort of makes them feel like they are imprisoned, much like the way in which the system has labeled them since their admission into the foster care system. It is imperative that we use our utmost judgment when it comes to opening up sensitive cases to maintain confidently and morality for our youth. This notion of opening the court system can not be a game of chess where the youth always become the checkmate victim.

While this new legislation is being introduced to allow more transparency in the juvenile courts, more are questioning the confidentiality of these cases. For nearly two decades, the juvenile dependency courts’ ability to manage court cases for foster youth, defend their well-being and future success has not been scrutinized thoroughly. In fact, in some of the state’s larger counties, judges and public defenders are crammed with over 100 court cases on any given day.

To be blunt, the bottom line is that many court judges and attorneys providing representation are overwhelmed by the number of cases that are being processed and presented as quickly as possible, much like an assembly line. The court process is to get the dependent in and out as quickly as possible.

Essentially, there are no real solutions to this agonizing problem; instead there are stacks of cases backed up on county court desks throughout the state. When problems like these arise in the child welfare and juvenile systems, the result is a far cry from a positive outcome. Every day, foster youth live in danger and fear and are constant divided between the limited choices that determine their fate. The lack of responsibility of the state to improve the court system and its procedures make it extremely difficult for youth living in the foster care system and the juvenile justice system. The levels of support that are needed to care for foster youth are just not there.

Honestly, having an open and transparent court can be a positive and a negative. Both ways can be beneficial if done right!  The courts can release information in the form of wide-ranging statistics on how well it performed in reducing criminal recidivism rates, and outline key aspects of the court’s role as the guardian of the child. This will give the public a glance at what the courts are doing in terms of how they are facilitating young lives in preparation for adulthood. But additional information such as making hearings public can jeopardize each foster youth’s confidentiality. It should not be made public, as it would only add a negative light to the existing issue.

Oftentimes, foster youth are invisible to society and are not viewed as contributing members. The growing number of foster youth in the state’s prison population is not just some inconceivable paranoia; it is a reality that we have to deal with.

These continuing problems with the state’s dependency courts are not only the state’s problems, but it is the public’s problem as well. The issue of statewide juvenile dependency courts has been avoided for way too long and is not seen as a priority in the midst of other hot issues that the state is faced with, like the $26.6 billion dollar deficit.  Now more than ever, the youth need the help of a stronger voice! The prominent quote of “It takes a village to raise a child” should speak more stridently than ever.

Sokhom Mao is a Commissioner-Appointee on the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Commission of Alameda County. The commission coordinates the work of the county’s organizations that are designed to prevent juvenile delinquency and inspects the publicly-administered institutions that house juveniles.


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