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Attempt under way to open up courts that deal with child abuse cases

No publicity, no justice.

That  sentiment — gleaned from a 1790 quote by English legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham and quoted in a recent Assembly Judiciary Committee report — is the thinking behind a new effort to open up dependency courts in California. This is the name for the court system that children find themselves in when they’re removed from their parents’ custody due to abuse or neglect, and when they’re in the foster care system.

In California, these courts are considered “presumptively closed” — that is, members of the public and the press are barred unless a judge feels there is a compelling reason to open up a hearing.

Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, wants to change that. His AB 73 would make these proceedings “presumptively open,” meaning the public would have access unless a judge made a decision to close them.

The rational for having closed courts is to protect vulnerable children. But Feuer said that his bill would allow for judges to close courtrooms in cases where the child could be put at risk, such as from an abusive parent who no longer has custody.

“An open system will hold participants in it much more accountable,” Feuer said. “That will safeguard the kids and integrity of the process.”

Feuer will be arguing his case at an Assembly Judiciary Committee oversight hearing Tuesday morning —open to the public, of course. One of the panelists Feuer has called on is Kathleen Blatz, former chief justice of Minnesota Supreme Court.

She’ll be talking about that state’s 2002 move to presumptively open dependency courts.  According to a legal study of the outcome of that decision, it was rare for children to suffer from that from negative consequences due to more openness.

For instance, it found that most children didn’t experience greater trauma from testifying with more strangers present, partially because the majority of the new people showing up were family members who weren’t directly involved. The report also found that more open courts didn’t discourage people from reporting abuse, compromise reunification efforts, lead to more adversarial cases, or increase court costs. Finally, it noted that the worst cases, where these concerns would be most prevalent, often included criminal proceedings, which are open to the public anyway.

There is no national standard for whether dependency courts should be open or closed. Only in Oregon and Pennsylvania are these courts proceedings always open, while 18 states have presumptively open courts. Seventeen states, largely in the South, have courts that are always closed.

But the pendulum appears to be shifting towards more open courts, with western states like Washington, Oregon and Alaska leading the way in recent years towards greater access. 

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