The rules around media access in child welfare courtrooms vary widely state by state and even county by county. In California, members of the media are generally considered parties with direct and legitimate interest in courtroom proceedings and granted access on those grounds.
We tried to attend a day of court in San Bernardino County, which is home to the second highest population of kids in foster care in the state. Here is the letter we sent upon being denied access to the child welfare court there.
To the Honorable Judge Annemarie Pace, Presiding Judge of the San Bernardino County Juvenile Dependency Court,
In late February, I reached out to the San Bernardino Juvenile Dependency Court requesting access to observe a day of court proceedings in my capacity as a journalist covering the child welfare system for The Imprint. I was disappointed to hear back from a court clerk a few days later that you were not only denying my request to observe your courtroom, but you were also unwilling to talk with me about the concerns that led you to deny me access.
I’m writing to respectfully ask that you reconsider this decision and allow the public its legitimate interest in understanding how your critically important court functions.
Journalists have always had a role in protecting the public interest by bringing transparency to court proceedings. Families and children involved in the child welfare system need somebody watching, too.
In barring media access to your court’s proceedings, you are also barring the public from understanding how the state makes decisions about the protection of the most vulnerable in our society. Such understanding is all the more important given that San Bernardino County is home to the second highest number of children placed into foster care in the state. According to the most recent data, the county has nearly 6,800 children placed in care.
In California, dependency courts are “presumed closed,” save for parties — notably journalists — with “direct and legitimate interest in the particular case or the work of the court.”
Ironically, that standard was set in San Bernardino.
The 1991 case San Bernardino County Dept. of Public Social Services v. Superior Court centered on the San Bernardino Sun’s access to dependency court records and proceedings. While the courts granted access to the Sun, they placed a “gag order” on the newspaper, restricting it from publishing certain facts and limiting their access to interview certain participants in the case.
Ultimately, the Fourth District Court of Appeal found the limitations placed on the Sun to be an abuse of judicial discretion. In assessing the case, the judges also addressed the issue of press access in general. Acting Presiding Judge Thomas Hollenhorst opined that “[m]embers of the press are persons having a ‘direct and legitimate interest in the work of the court’ and may be permitted to attend such proceedings in the exercise of the juvenile court’s discretion,” unless there is a “reasonable likelihood” that such access would be harmful to the child’s best interest.
In Minnesota, a three-year pilot project from 1998 through 2002 that evaluated the impact of open dependency court proceedings “did not encounter any cases where harm to children or parents irrefutably resulted from open hearings/records although many professionals expressed concern for the potential of such harm.”
It is well known that the overwhelming media narrative around the child welfare system focuses largely on the most gruesome, sensationalistic cases of abuse and neglect. This reporting results in a skewed perception of a vitally important system by not only the public, but by the lawmakers who have the power to implement reforms.
Access to juvenile dependency hearings allows journalists to produce stories about the child welfare system in a way that more accurately represents the system as a whole, rather than highlighting just the most horrific cases.
My goal in attending your court is simply to observe the everyday functioning of a child welfare courtroom. As I stated to the clerk who relayed your decision to me, our publication has gone as far as developing a code of ethics for journalists like me who want to gain access to the dependency court system.
That code of ethics compels us to protect children’s identities by not publishing their names, addresses or any identifying details. We also respect the decisions of children involved in child welfare proceedings. If they do not consent to our presence, we will leave the courtroom.
As someone with a real stake in understanding and communicating to the public how the dependency court operates, I respectfully ask once more that you allow me to observe your courtroom in San Bernardino County.
This is a part of a new Chronicle series called “Hearings,” where our reporters and guest contributors provide an inside look at how child welfare courts function.
In about half the states in the country, child welfare proceedings are closed to the public and media – despite the fact that they are places where children enter foster care; where families are ripped apart, sometimes put back together and otherwise – through adoption – made anew.
If you are a judge, parent, foster youth, attorney or an advocate for families … we want to hear from you. Share a story from a recent dependency court experience that you believe speaks to a problem or a success story.
Anonymity may be granted depending on the nature of your contribution. Our intent with this – and all Chronicle projects – is to ethically cover the child welfare system, which often means protecting the names and identities of children and families caught up in it.
A recent federal rule change could mean hundreds of millions of new funds for top-flight legal advocacy, and portends a new era of family justice in child welfare. Intense media coverage of this issue will drive increased funding for quality legal representation at the county, state and federal level.
Will you help us sustain our coverage of family justice?