By C.J. Barbre

Tulare County Health and Human Services Assistant Director John Davis updated the Board of Supervisors at their Jan. 25 meeting about potential changes regarding confidentiality in child welfare cases in Juvenile Court.

He was assisted by County Counsel's Assistant Director Human Services Branch, John Rozum. They said last year a bill was introduced to allow the public and press to attend Juvenile Court.

"It's likely to change the way we do our business," Davis said. He said they have 14,000 cases in their computers, cases they keep on file for 18 years. This includes 63,000 kids and parents. Approximately 3,500 individuals are added each year. Of course some go inactive as well. As of Jan. 1 there were 128,000 active cases statewide.

The distribution, illustrated in a pie chart, includes 41 percent under the heading of "exploitation, caretaker/incapacity and other," 34 percent under "general neglect," 13 percent labeled "physical abuse," six percent are "sexual abuse," with four percent considered "severe neglect." Last and least, "emotional abuse" is listed at two percent although it seems that most of the other abuses would include some degree of emotional abuse.

Davis said that in addition to the 14,000 actual cases they are detaining, there were many more cases they have been told about, but that have not made it officially on the list. He said Child Welfare Services must keep a record of any complaint from any source. They get about 700 calls a month.

Davis said some calls are very serious and require an immediate response while the less serious must be responded to in 10 days. A hearing has to be scheduled in 72 hours with a pretrial hearing in two weeks. Everyone returns in six months for a progress report and they decide at 12 months if the child should stay in placement or if they can go back home. The cases continue to be revisited every six months until the court is satisfied the home environment is safe and nurturing. "We have two functions, to fix and strengthen families and to collect information for the courts," Davis told the supervisors.

The argument for open juvenile courts has become a statewide debate. The judge would still have strict control of the courtroom and would have sanctions available. Davis said the present closed court system could be traced back to Chicago 100 years ago, and that it hadn't changed much since it was initially decided that children needed different standards than adults. At the same time they decided that the public had no right to know. Everything was left up to the judge which sometimes resulted in abuses.

A 1998 report titled Innovative Practices in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Systems gives a historical perspective of what has brought about this desire for more open juvenile courts, as follows:

The problem of how to deal with juvenile offenders has plagued society since before the establishment of the first juvenile court in 1899. Prior to that development, delinquent juveniles were processed through the adult court and often received harsh punishment.

In line with the early juvenile court's philosophy of protecting youth, juvenile offenders' placement was often in reformatories or training schools that were designed, in theory, to keep them away from the bad influences of society and to instill self-control through rigorous structure and harsh discipline. In fact they were often dangerous and unhealthy places where the state warehoused delinquent, neglected and abandoned children for indefinite periods.

In the late 1960s, concern about the apparently unconstitutional contradiction between the informality of the juvenile proceedings and the possible deprivation of liberty faced by a juvenile offender led to a Supreme Court decision that extended many of the same safeguards of due process including the right to counsel, notice requirements and other due process guarantees.

There have been more rounds of reforms including community-based alternatives such as group homes, foster care settings and electronic monitoring, which were instituted in the 1970s and remain today.

With an increase in violent crimes by juveniles the 1980s-90s began an era emphasizing punishment and public safety. Legislation made it easier for juveniles arrested for violent crimes to be tried as adults.

"So now they allow attorneys, parents and CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) on behalf of the child. The the court has opened up somewhat." Davis said. But he said there is a divide between advocates for open courts and those who are interested in child protection.

Proponents for more open courts include California Newspaper Publishes Association, Support Parents and Children, Juvenile Court Judges of California, Judicial Council of California, Children's Advocacy Institute, Citizens' Commission on Human Rights, and Californians Aware. That sounds like a pretty impressive roster for children's rights.

They argue that this would be a validation of child victim's rights, improve public awareness and education, create child welfare system and court accountabilityn and improve court relations. They say that positive media coverage would encourage foster parent recruitment and help develop and mobilize resources.

Opponents of expansion include Legal Services for Children, California Welfare Directors Association, California Western School of Law, National Association of Counsel for Children (LA Affiliate), National Association of Social Workers (California Chapter), California Youth Connection and Professor W. Patton with the Whittier Law School. These groups sound like they would simply rather not have the public looking over their shoulders and judging their performance.

They argue that only the sensational cases would be publicized creating a distortion of public perception; that it would retraumatize the child victim; that there would be in increase in contested cases, an increase in motions to close cases, and it would make plea-bargaining problematic. While they have said only the sensational cases would be publicized, they also argue there would be a "lack of public attendance and concern." They say more open courts have not resulted in improvements in the system or "No proven systemic improvements," in their words. Since the courts are not open, how can there be a record of any sort on systemic improvements or the lack thereof? The last bureaucratic argument is that it would cost more. Yes, it would to start, but it could cost less in the long run.

In the January 25 Los Angeles Times is a story titled "Mentally Ill Kids Incarcerated, Study Finds."

The article says, "A report commissioned by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) found that of the 45 juvenile detention facilities responding to a survey, 27 held youths waiting for mental health services outside of the justice system. Eighteen of those institutions held such children between the ages of 8 and 12. They included both those who committed crimes and those who didn't but, for example, those whose families couldn't handle them and called the police."

The report found that one in eight juvenile detainees in California is waiting for treatment, or more than 250 each night. The average stay in the detention facility is two months which is three times longer than the national average. The cost of housing the youths awaiting mental health services is estimated at $10.8 million a year. The conclusion was that there needed to be more collaboration between mental health services and the juvenile justice system.

It is the confidentiality rule that disallows vital information to even be discussed between mental health, probation and other law enforcement. "Mental health and probation have their own confidentiality regulations," Attorney John Rozum said. "We can't even discuss it with county government."

Board Counsel said the San Mateo Board of Supervisors requested that all cases in the juvenile court be open unless someone moved to have them closed on a case by case basis, but groups have threatened to sue if this happens.

Rozum said the biggest advocates for more open juvenile courts are the courts themselves.

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