News Series on Stressed Family Courts Wins duPont Award

A television production exploring how budget cuts to California’s court system have adversely affected Los Angeles Counties Juvenile Dependency Couts was awarded one of this year’s prestigious Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards.

SoCal Connected, a program of community television network KCET, was granted constrained access to a Los Angeles family courtroom and interviewed key players in the city’s dependency court process.

What producer Karen Foshay and correspondent Jennifer London found in the piece, “Courting Disaster,” was a court where judges were overextended by large dockets, attorneys were appointed to represent more than 200 people at a time

“It’s actually fairly accurate to say that…we’re dealing with these families in a much more superficial way than we really need to in order to achieve the best outcome for kids and families,” L.A. County Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash told London in the piece. “And trust me, that’s a problem.”

At the same time, London and Foshay found, funding cuts to programs and services for parents and children have delayed and at times jeopardized the reunification of children with their birth parents.

“It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had to think that I might not get my little girl because I’m on some waiting list, and I have this time limit and I’m doing everything I can to try and get into somewhere,” parent Michelle Dodge told London, referring to court-ordered drug rehabilitation she managed to access at the last minute.

In a video for the DuPont Awards, Foshay and London recounted a drawn-out process to gain access that was nearly derailed.

“It took a year of me returning to that courtroom, meeting the judges, the attorneys, trying to gain access,” Foshay said.

The two were running out of time before the SoCal Connected season ended when Judge Nash notified them one day that, if they could file a petition by 5pm to cover Judge Amy Pellman, and she agreed, he would grant access.

Pellman signed off on the project, although on the day the team showed up to film, they ran into further resistance.

“We still ran up against a number of attorneys who on the day, said. ‘We don’t want you here, and we’re filing motion with the court to block you from coming in,” recalls London in the video segment.

Months after SoCal Connected spent a day with the court, but before the piece aired, Judge Nash made a  controversial decision to grant greater media access to reporters. A group that represents many of Los Angeles’ dependent children, Children’s Law Center of California, has expressed concern about the decision.

Last month, Nash and law center Executive Director Leslie Starr Heimov were featured speakers at Fostering Media Connections’ forum on open courts. Click here to watch part one of the forum, and here to watch part two.

SoCal Connected re-aired the piece tonight on KCET at 5:30pm and 10:30pm. It is also available here on the program’s website.

BEHIND THE STORY — SoCal Connected: Courting Disaster from Alfred I. duPont Awards on Vimeo.

John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Imprint

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