Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Children Have A Right to Attend Court Hearings

Santa Clara County foster-care court struggles to adjust to kids' larger role
de Sá, Karen. Mercury News, April 5, 2008.

After years of being largely left out of proceedings that decide their fates, more children are now joining the flurry of parents, attorneys and social workers churning each weekday through the Santa Clara County Juvenile Dependency Court.

A February memo to social workers titled "Children Have a Right to Attend Court Hearings" - coupled with new efforts by children's lawyers - jogged the local system that decides whether to remove children from their homes following allegations of child abuse and neglect.

The change began within days of a Mercury News series highlighting systemic flaws in California's dependency courts. But the results - while pleasing many participants - are roiling San Jose's ill-equipped garment-factory-turned-dependency-courthouse.

The influx of child clients has fed an already tense and chaotic scene outside the three bustling dependency courtrooms handling 13,000 hearings a year for more than 2,500 children.

On a recent weekday at the Terraine Street facility, a toddler threw his sippy cup across a crowded bank of plastic chairs in a court waiting room. A shell-shocked teenager stared dully around her, and a small girl leaned against her caregiver, practicing her reading on a SpongeBob SquarePants coloring book.

"I am really happy to see kids in court. It's important that they are there because it's their lives we are deciding," said Supervising Judge Katherine Lucero. "I just want to be responsive and make a way for this trend to be continued. We're concerned that the court experience for children is not as easily facilitated as it might be if we had better accommodations."

Memo's result
Although there are no hard numbers available, dependency judges and lawyers confirmed they've seen an increased number of children at hearings in the last two months, following a Feb. 6 Department of Family and Children's Services memo. Officials say children were offered the opportunity to go to court even before the memo, but acknowledge there were "inconsistencies" in practice among social workers.

"Under no circumstances should a social worker tell a child they cannot or should not come to court," states the memo. ". . . if a child asks to come to court, then the child's request must be honored. One of the major complaints from former dependent children who emancipated from foster care is that they never knew they could come to court and talk to the judge."

Among lawyers for children, there also have been changes as a result of the memo and the newspaper series, said Nick Muyo, spokesman for the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office. In an unusual arrangement, Santa Clara County uses prosecutors to represent children in dependency court; those lawyers receive information from investigators who interview child clients.

"One thing we are doing now is we're making it a point when the investigators meet with the kids to ask them whether they want to go to court," Muyo said. "And if they do want to go to court and for whatever reason cannot make it, we make it a point to continue the case."

Deputy County Counsel Michael Clark, who helps direct the legal office representing social workers, said judges too have played a role, by requesting that teenagers with "high-risk behaviors" come to court to discuss their cases.

Kids' crucial role
Children's active participation in dependency court is seen by experts as vital to good decision-making. It allows them to weigh in on their futures and gives an overloaded court system the opportunity to connect a face with a file.

State lawmakers are now considering the issue as well, with a new bill, AB 3051, sailing through a key Assembly committee this week on a vote of 10-0. The bill, by Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, the chairman of the Assembly's Judiciary Committee, requires willing children to be active participants in court, and emboldens judges to push lawyers for explanations when child clients do not appear.

But courts statewide, as in San Jose, may struggle to make the adjustment.

The dependency court boasts a small children's waiting room, with toddlers' toys and Disney movies. But the space does not serve older children braving the often hours-long wait for court. The congested main waiting room places foster children alongside parents and relatives - even relatives the court may be seeking to separate from the children.

"I'm a big proponent of kids coming to court and being able to participate, but we don't have a place for them to wait," said Jennifer Kelleher, directing attorney for the non-profit Legal Advocates for Children and Youth. "We need to make sure they are physically and emotionally safe when they're going to attend a hearing. We need to make sure that court is a positive experience."

Dan Weidman, a longtime social worker and union officer, said the tedious wait for court - in a building with little to occupy them - turns children off to the whole experience.

"The kid gets frustrated and then the next time you're going to want to bring them to court they're going to put up real resistance," Weidman said

The Santa Clara County court is now searching for a new building, and looking for ways to set dependency hearings at specific times to cut down on the wait.

"We need to conform ourselves to this trend and accommodate children in court and not in any way give a message that they have created a problem for us to solve," Lucero said. "We need to make it as child-friendly as possible."

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