Monday, August 04, 2008

Bill entitles foster youth to speak at court hearings

Foster child hearings rules change
Kids can address court; county already allows children to do so
Wilson, Kathleen. Ventura County Star, July 26, 2008.

Foster children will have the right to speak at court hearings determining their fate under a bill signed this week by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Current law entitles children to appear at the proceedings, but the new legislation requires that they be allowed to address the court and take part. If foster youths 10 or older haven't been properly notified, the judge must "continue," or postpone, the hearing.

Officials said Friday the law would not make any difference in Ventura County, because it's already the practice in the county's juvenile dependency court.

Judge Tari Cody has made children's participation "an absolute priority," said Jane Reimann, program manager in the county Human Services Agency. "She is very sensitive to kids having a voice."

If a child is absent from a hearing where decisions are being made about the child's welfare, Cody requires social workers to report the reason, Reimann said.

"If the child is not appearing, she wants to know why," Reimann said. "If the reason doesn't meet her satisfaction, she will continue the hearing."

Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, sponsored the bill in reaction to a series of articles this year in the San Jose Mercury News.

The series found judges were issuing "life-altering rulings without ever seeing the children whose futures were being decided."

The law Jones proposed, AB3051, passed unanimously. Schwarzenegger signed it Monday.

In Ventura County, judges continue hearings for children even if they're under 10, Reimann said.

Some foster kids want nothing to do with the court hearings, but those who do bring a point of view the experts can't, child welfare officials said.

By getting involved, they also can begin to connect to a court system that seems foreign, Assistant County Counsel Oliver Hess said.

"The only way to connect them is to bring them into it," said Hess, who represents the county Human Services Agency in abuse and neglect cases.

Raquel Montes, president of a Ventura County group advocating for foster children, called the legislation "a huge step."

Montes, who was in foster care herself for 10 years, said youths in the system often feel powerless. "Almost all along in foster care, they have no voice," said Montes, 23, of Ventura.

The law takes effect Jan. 1.

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