An Open Letter Calling for Ethical Coverage of Juvenile Dependency Proceedings

An appeal to journalists across the country to gain access to juvenile dependency courts, write about their findings and end the cloak of confidentiality obstructing deeper, necessary reform to the foster care system.

Having studied foster care and covered it for the better part of a decade, I have come to understand that the greatest impediment to improved outcomes for foster children is our current, warped public perception of the system. A combination of the system’s overt obfuscation, coupled with the news media’s over representative coverage of child death and tragedy, have painted a picture of a broken foster care system. While this may be part of the story, it is neglects to paint the fuller, more-nuanced picture of what child welfare actually is: a system that is as much progressive as backwards, and that likely helps more than it hurts. The result is a general public, who generally accept the notion that the system is broken and too often regard foster children as tainted for their association with it.

This is dangerous to those children. It contributes to the dearth of exceptional foster and adoptive parents, leads lawmakers to make knee jerk reactions and negatively stigmatizes foster children themselves.

For years, I have worked to give the public a more accurate picture of the foster care system through my writings, that of my staff and FMC’s consistent outreach to journalists across the country.

But for all these efforts an enormous barrier still remains: the cloak of confidentiality asserted by public child welfare administrations as a protection of the best interests of children in the system. Like the public perception of foster care I already described, this is only part of the truth. Confidentiality laws often become a shield against the news media’s scrutiny of the system’s handling of particular cases or flaws in general policy. This lack of transparency invariably stymies reform and arguably impinges on systemic improvements that would better the lives of individual foster children.

If the goal is a more balanced, full and thus accurate picture of the foster care system, we must knock down one of the clearest barriers to transparency – media access to juvenile dependency court proceedings.

I will not go deep into history on the subject. Jim Newton of the Los Angeles Times, Andrea Poe of the Washington Times, Kelli Kennedy of the Associated Press, Marjie Lundstrom of the Sacramento Bee, Kim Hansel of Fostering Families Today, Petula Dvorak of the Washington Post and many others have contributed greatly to an already robust debate on this subject.

Instead, I offer a strategy to grant all journalists across the country access to juvenile dependency hearings, foment trust between circumspect child welfare professionals and journalists; and through these efforts create a framework for nuanced and exceptional coverage of the foster care system.

Here you will find a report on the debate over open courts that my organization, Fostering Media Connections, produced with the help of a law student at Harvard Law School’s Child Advocacy Program as well as a draft code of ethics for journalists who are attempting to access dependency proceedings. We have been using the code of ethics to access otherwise closed juvenile dependency hearings throughout California.

On November 15th, 2012, FMC  - alongside the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy – will hold a convening at the University of California Berkeley’s School of Law (Boalt Hall) to promote the code of ethics as a means to promote transparency in the juvenile dependency system and ethical coverage of those hearings and the foster care system more generally.

We are now asking you to take the attached code of ethics to judges, commissioners and court referees in your jurisdiction and ask for access to these proceedings. Please write about what you see; feel free use our report as background or for attribution.

If we can collectively create a swell of coverage leading into and out of the convening on the 15th, my bet is that we will have greatly eased access to juvenile dependency courts for future journalists.

But the real opportunity here is that by living up to the ideals of our profession, we have an honest chance at improving the lives of children.

I am not so stupid to think I have I all the answers, so I am directly soliciting your help.My cell phone number is 510-334-8636; I am waiting for your call and look forward to your suggestions and guidance.

Sincerely,

Daniel Heimpel, Director Fostering Media Connections

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