Open Child Welfare Courts Should Be Inevitability of Reform

by Ben Baeder

If the public only knew how messed up things were for foster kids, people would insist on change.

That’s the enduring — and possibly naïve — hope among those who know the children in foster care. For the last two years, that belief was put to test.

In early 2012, the judge in charge of Los Angeles County’s foster care court, Michael Nash, bucked state law and opened the formerly secret courts to reporters.

The brief period of openness produced a few hard news stories about the courts. Earlier this month, a state court of appeals reversed the order, and once again restored secrecy to cases of the approximately 30,000 children who annually go before the court in Los Angeles County.

I guess this is the part where I should probably say why I care. As I type this, two former foster children are leaning on my shoulders, asking whether I will let them play Candy Crush Saga. Another former foster kid is in her room downstairs, acting like a teenager and sleeping in as long as she possibly can.

I love foster kids. And I am not only a foster parent, but a journalist who has covered the system for years.

These kids deserve the public’s interest. Which is why it surprised me when the CYC two years ago led the charge to keep courts closed

Even if you’re a codger who doesn’t like people, then this issue should still matter to you. The Los Angeles County government this year will spend $2 billion serving foster children, which comes to $66,000 for each child.

And, to be blunt, we have very little data about what that money buys. We’re just starting to figure out which children thrive, and which don’t. Our tracking of foster care outcomes is in its nascent phase; a collection of information that gives us a limited picture of how foster children do in adulthood.

So where does the issue go from here?

Unless you have been through it, you probably don’t know much about how the foster care system works. The secrecy and complexity make it difficult for the electorate to get insights on how to improve the system.

And honestly, I think that’s the way the system’s actors like it. They want more money for their work, but they aren’t willing to let the public know what happens in foster care. That’s not a knock on them. They are often underpaid, and they worry that the public won’t understand how  tricky each case can be.

With that said, I think that the public will eventually insist on open courts.

While much of the data on outcomes is still in a nascent phase, over the last four years researchers have been churning out information on foster care at an unheard of pace. They are creating predictive models and finding out which kids will likely fare the worst. They are tying foster care to teen pregnancy, imprisonment, homelessness and chronic drug use. The once murky waters of social science are clearing. And all signs are pointing to a future where this system is poised to do a better job with children in the county’s care.

As the information emerges, voters will get fed up and insist on knowing how their money is being spent. Specifically, they will start to wonder if it is really making a difference. Birth parents will insist that scrutiny be applied to judges and social workers. Foster parents will get sick of sitting on the sidelines. And judges, many of whom have dedicated their lives to helping kids, will want the truth to come out.

The large-scale data will have to be married to the individual stories of children in foster care. The data will describe the problem, and the anecdotal cases will help society figure out where things went wrong.

Lawmakers for years have tried to introduce legislation to open courts. But they have all been thwarted by resistance from groups with vested interests in the system, including social workers’ unions and groups of attorneys who represent the children.

Arguments against open courts are strong, especially when they make the case that a child really doesn’t want a television or newspaper reporter around while a lawyer is describing in graphic detail things such as molestation, violence and sexuality. I understand this. Children have skeletons in their closets; they didn’t put the skeletons there, but they are there none-the-less. If they want to keep them there, they should have that right.

For most people, the children in foster care are other people’s problems. But those who do become familiar with the workings of the system are often shocked at what they see.

The hearings for most children last just a few minutes, and the lawyers often don’t talk to the children until moments before everyone walks into the courtroom. Birth parents and foster parents are often caught flat-footed by county recommendations that came seemingly out of the blue. Many times, county workers seem scared to act out of fear that a judge or supervisor will simply reverse their recommendations. So they force children to make decisions about their placement, and then say they are respecting the child’s wishes. It’s really depressing.

It’s a system that breeds distrust and suspicion.

In the end, however, I think the truth will win out. And it has become clear to me the last few weeks which group holds the key to unlocking the secret courts. It’s the former foster youth who are aging out of the system, specifically the young men and women of the California Youth Connection, a group of aged-out young people who build leadership skills by encouraging former foster youth to push for better care of foster youth.

Realistically, the courts won’t open until the youth at CYC say so. Legislators will not be willing to shove open courts down foster kids’ throats. So far, CYC members have objected to open courts, saying that the youth don’t really have the time to sit and talk with their attorneys about their apprehensions.

They’re right. But I’m not sure that will change until the public understands what foster youth are facing. People truly don’t know how things work.

They may not be factoring in that the government, despite spending all that money on foster care, spends only about $700 annually to pay for a child’s legal representation. They don’t know that many foster children have been in foster care three or four times. They don’t know about the child who has changed schools so many times that the child is missing a whole year’s worth of high school credits. And that’s how things will remain as long as court stays closed.

In the end, I think the youth of CYC will do something that may not come easily to them. They’ll trust. They’ll look at people like Judge Michael Nash, who personally has nothing to gain from opening the courts, and accept that he’s coming from a righteous place.

They’ll look at the data from other states. And they’ll realize they need the public behind any major effort to improve the lives of the 50,000 California children who are still in foster care. They’ll realize that the truth, even at its most bitter, sets people free.

Ben Baeder is a foster parent, and was the former deputy managing editor of the San Gabriel Valley Newspaper Group

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