By Tasion Kwamilele
By law, California’s juvenile dependency hearings are “presumptively closed,” meaning the courts are inaccessible to members of the press unless admitted by the presiding judge, commissioner or referee. Earlier this year, Presiding Judge Michael Nash of Los Angeles County issued a blanket order opening up that county’s system, making it the first to do so in the state.
Whether other jurisdictions judicial leadership will follow suit remains to be seen, but the views of one leading Contra Costa judge suggest opposition to the concept.
Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Joni Hiramoto recently expressed her thoughts in an e-mail to the Chronicle:
“I do believe in a free press [but] have seen firsthand the effects of media coverage on court cases and I am frankly not impressed by it,” she wrote. “Even when the reporter gets the facts right, I have found there is a spin and an impact on the case created by the media presence and the publicity that I can fairly describe as perverting.”
Janet Sherwood is the Deputy Director at Advokids, a San Francisco based non-profit organization that provides legal resources for foster children in California. She agrees with Judge Nash’s ruling and can see the positive impact open courts could have on ensuring the effectiveness of the child welfare system.
“The public has the right to know when the system isn’t working,” Sherwood said. “The stories are more about the courts….and I think that it’s interesting that a number of stories have talked about instances where the court found that the department hasn’t done their job properly.”
Sherwood notes that the Los Angeles Times has conducted ethical reporting since the courts were opened, and it has made the commitment that its reporters “wouldn’t identify the child by name.”
Assemblyman Jim Beall is a staunch supporter of foster youth interests in the Sacramento and works to ensure they are provided with the resources and services necessary for success. He says open courts have a great potential to benefit kids.
“I just don’t buy everything the court says,” said Beall. “I listen to what they say, but the primary thing is what’s best for the youth. What’s going to bring a successful outcome?”
He is in support of open juvenile dependency hearings as long as the youth involved in each hearing approves of media presence.
“If a teenager wants to have an honest discussion with the judge about how their parents are molesting them, they may not want to have that talk in front of the media,” said Beall.
The idea of opening juvenile dependency hearings should possibly be taken on a case-by-case basis to determine if the presence of media will hinder the case.
Karen De Sa, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, was allowed in juvenile hearings and her ensuing coverage helped drive legislation to the benefit of youth. She focused on the courts’ struggle to provide adequate legal representation to families and to garner youth participation in their own hearings. De Sa’s ethical coverage led to legislation being passed to help increase their participation.
“The counties use confidentiality as a shield…from any public scrutiny for their behavior,” said Sherwood.
Judge Nash of Los Angeles County agrees. In a recent Washington Post article, Judge Nash said, “Confidentiality tends to protect the system, rather than the children in the system.’’
This is part of a series of stories that will describe the juvenile dependency court system as seen by Chronicle of Social Change reporters. Daniel Heimpel is the Director of Fostering Media Connections and the Publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change.