Children in court - new policy

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Marina
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Children in court - new policy

Postby Marina » Sat Apr 05, 2008 6:56 pm

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http://www.mercurynews.com/ci_8821086?source=rss

Santa Clara County foster-care court struggles to adjust to kids' larger role
By Karen de Sá
Mercury News
Article Launched: 04/05/2008 01:31:14 AM PDT



An interactive look inside California's juvenile dependency courts

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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Marina
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Postby Marina » Mon Jul 21, 2008 5:24 pm

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http://www.mercurynews.com/ci_9939780?source=rss

State budget threatens bill giving foster kids a bigger say in court
BIGGER SAY AT HEARINGS FOR FOSTER KIDS AT ISSUE
By Edwin Garcia
Mercury News Sacramento Bureau
Article Launched: 07/20/2008 01:36:38 AM PDT



SACRAMENTO - Child-welfare advocates fear last-minute funding concerns will cause Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to veto legislation that would permit foster children a greater role in dependency court hearings.

Their worries stem from the administration's finance department analysis that put the cost of the measure at about $500,000 next year, and $900,000 the following year - costs that the legislation's author and child advocates consider grossly exaggerated.

Schwarzenegger has until Monday to act on the bill, which is designed to ensure that children generally have the chance to appear in court for their dependency cases.

The governor's office said Friday that Schwarzenegger has not decided on the bill, and could not comment on the pending legislation. But his office has offered the author, Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, the chance to take it back to an appropriate fiscal committee for further review, which could potentially delay implementation another year.

The bill, AB 3051, unanimously passed both the Assembly and the Senate after the Mercury News series "Broken Families, Broken Courts" in February identified as one significant problem of dependency courts statewide the fact that children routinely are absent from hearings at which their fate can be decided. The problem was later highlighted in a report on dependency court by a blue-ribbon commission appointed by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George.

The legislation would require dependency court officers to postpone hearings if a child age 10 or older is not present and has not been properly notified or given an opportunity to attend. At the hearings, judges or their substitutes - referees or commissioners - consider allegations of abuse or neglect by parents, and decide the fates of children temporarily placed in foster care.

The administration calculated the costs after consulting with the Department of Social Services, saying it represents the price of social workers notifying each child and transporting them to court.

But advocates Friday rejected that estimate, noting current law already calls for children to be alerted of their hearings; the new legislation merely enforces that provision.

"I was really shocked to hear that the Department of Finance had put a cost estimate to the bill because children already have the right to notice of their hearings, and they have a right to go to their hearings," said Alice Bussiere, a staff attorney at Youth Law Center in San Francisco who specializes in foster children. "None of that should cost any more money."

In Los Angeles County, the only county where foster children are routinely included in dependency court hearings, social workers need only five minutes to notify a child, said Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children's Law Center of Los Angeles. And transportation to court, she said, is usually the responsibility of the caregiver, who receives a federal subsidy.

Heimov said the "long-term impact of not doing the best we can for our state's abused and neglected children will be far more expensive both in dollars and cents and human cost than the half-million dollars that the governor's office is projecting."

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Marina
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Postby Marina » Tue Jul 22, 2008 4:08 pm

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http://www.mercurynews.com/politics/ci_ ... source=rss

Governor signs bill to improve rights for foster children in court
By Karen de Sá
Mercury News
Article Launched: 07/22/2008 01:38:29 AM PDT



Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger strengthened the rights of California's 80,000 children in foster care on Monday, signing a law that ensures greater opportunities for youths to be present in court hearings deciding the course of their lives - from where they will live to how often, if ever, they will see their families.

The measure was introduced by Assemblyman Dave Jones, a Democrat from Sacramento, to address a major flaw in California's juvenile dependency courts throughout the state: Hearings routinely occur without the children whose lives are at stake. Their absence was one key problem highlighted in the February series in the Mercury News, "Broken Families, Broken Courts," that revealed deep dysfunction in the state dependency system, the largest in the nation.

A commission appointed by Chief Justice Ronald George later reiterated the problem.

The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, calls for judicial officers to postpone hearings for children at least 10 years old if they have not been given notice and the chance to attend; while the law already called for children to be notified of hearings, it made no provision if the law was ignored.

In a letter released to members of the California State Assembly who had voted unanimously for the bill, the governor said he "wholeheartedly" supports the goal of providing foster children with greater access to hearings. "I am signing this bill because the foster children of this state deserve to have a role


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in their futures," Schwarzenegger said.
Governor's rebuke

But he also sent a rebuke to local decision makers - the judges, lawyers and social workers who oversee such weighty matters as whether children will ever see their parents again, following allegations of abuse or neglect. Outside of Los Angeles, where the participation of children is an ingrained part of the local court culture, foster youths are routinely absent from hearings in their cases, the Mercury News investigation determined.

Judges up and down the state revealed in interviews that they are unable to make the best decisions for children in foster care when they cannot see them, hear from them, and attach a name with a file, regardless of the age of the child.

Schwarzenegger questioned "why the courts have not made such access a greater priority when it is allowed under current law. More likely than not the reason is lack of resources and overburdened court schedules, which this bill fails to address."

He also cautioned that whatever costs the new law would incur, such as transportation expenses or social worker time, would have to be borne under existing budgets, in a time of fiscal crisis statewide.

A triumphant Jones, the Assembly judiciary chairman, greeted the news of his bill's passage Monday afternoon by thanking the governor for signing the bill despite estimates by his staff that the bill would cost up to $900,000 a year.

"These hearings are deciding the very futures of these children," said Jones. "It makes no sense whatsoever to deny them the opportunity to be there and participate. The costs of not doing so are enormous in terms of bad decisions about placements, further abuse and neglect, and broken lives."

Jones said he was moved to act after reading in the Mercury News the story of former foster youth-turned-student activist Zairon Frazier of Alameda County.

Frazier fought to attend all his court hearings but did so by his own sheer will and determination. Absent support, he traveled by bus and train to and from his court hearings, at times in the dark, alone and afraid. When he left the foster care system at age 18, his final "emancipation hearing" was held in his absence. No one bothered to change the date to avoid a scheduling conflict with his high school final exams.

'A duty'

Frazier - now 21 and busy scraping together the money to attend the University of Hawaii by working three jobs - said he is elated to hear the path will be easier for foster youths now coming through the system.

"I did not know the entire state senate would be voting on a story about what happened to me in foster care. I consider it an honor, it's very exciting," he said. "But I also consider it a duty. I'm a foster youth advocate, it's what I'm supposed to do. If something went wrong with you, change it so that it won't happen to anybody else."

Last week, Schwarzenegger signed two other bills to improve the foster care system. One bill requires county welfare departments to provide youths aging out of the system with documents needed to obtain medical benefits and other social services, as well as family photographs and information regarding Indian heritage. A second bill strengthens the legal rights of foster youth who have children of their own while in the system.

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Marina
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Postby Marina » Sun Jul 27, 2008 2:43 pm

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http://www.venturacountystar.com/news/2 ... _headlines

Foster child hearings rules change
Kids can address court; county already allows children to do so

By Kathleen Wilson (Contact)
Saturday, 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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Marina
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Postby Marina » Fri Feb 20, 2009 10:21 pm

http://www.mercurynews.com/ci_11733518?source=rss

Santa Clara County foster youth will have a changed experience in court when new lawyers take over

By Karen de Sá


Mercury News

Posted: 02/18/2009 04:47:31 PM PST



Special Investigation
Broken families, broken courts: The full series

http://www.mercurynews.com/dependency/

The court experience for children in Santa Clara County's foster care system will shift dramatically in the coming months, when a team of young lawyers from a scrappy nonprofit agency takes over the cases of abused and neglected kids from the district attorney's office.

In a departure from long-standing local practice, lawyers with Legal Advocates for Children and Youth will meet their clients wherever the vulnerable children end up — in foster care or group homes, with relatives or on the streets. Children who have been removed from home will soon have one lawyer representing them over the life of their case, a person they can grow to trust and confide in over time.

And in an often overwhelming and bewildering system, the children will receive greater encouragement to appear in court beside their attorneys, to speak for themselves when a lawyer's voice just won't do.

Children here have typically not appeared in court, and their district attorneys — juggling as many as 420 cases — have used office investigators for client interviews. That has left judges relying on a secondhand interpretation of the child's position before making life-altering rulings.

The new philosophy for dependency court is that no child is too young to appear, said LACY's directing attorney Jennifer Kelleher. While recently interviewing a 6-year-old girl living in a Gilroy foster home, Kelleher drew a courtroom sketch for her young client,



including all the players who will decide whether she returns home or is separated from her parents forever: Social workers, parents and their lawyers, a deputy and a court clerk, a judge in a robe, and a girl in pigtails at the center of the legal debate.

Kids in court

"This 6-year-old repeatedly said she wanted to see the judge and see who was making the decisions," Kelleher said. "Kids want to be in court — and they're going to be."

A February 2008 Mercury News series, "Broken Families, Broken Courts," documented widespread dysfunction in the California dependency courts, a forgotten legal landscape that in vast swaths of the state leaves children little voice in proceedings that dictate their lives. In Santa Clara County, prosecutors have represented foster youth for more than 20 years, an unusual and widely criticized practice considered contrary to the dependency court goals of seeking family reunification as soon as circumstances improve.

But in a decision this month that marks a first for the county, state and local court officials as part of larger systemic reforms rejected the DA's bid to continue representing children.

As the new contractor come July, LACY — which was formed in 1990 as a branch of the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley — will expand its current offerings as a full-service advocacy center. The donor-supported nonprofit center will grant foster youth greater access to its array of legal services — including representation following violent dates, immigration raids and school expulsions. LACY lawyers already serve youth in special education programs, pregnant teens in family court and runaways battling homelessness and public bureaucracies.

As the main dependency court provider, there will be challenges for the new legal team. County prosecutors provided a stable workforce rich in office staff, databases and the inherent stature of the office; the district attorneys are the highest paid children's lawyers in the state.

Lowered case loads

LACY's staff of 13 attorneys — a number that's now set to more than double — currently make a fraction of the prosecutors' $180,000-plus salaries. Appearing in court while simultaneously working the field also will be a challenge, given dependency's high case loads.

But supervising attorney Andrew Cain said the case load LACY is hoping for — a maximum of 175 children per lawyer — is well below the new state standard of 188.

Lowered case loads allow the time children's lawyers say they need to make a personal connection with clients, many of whom are unlikely to tell a complete stranger in a crowded court waiting room about trauma they may have suffered.

In a client interview a reporter observed in late 2007 as part of the "Broken Families, Broken Courts" series, LACY attorney Allison Barnum met with a South Bay teenager who was among the few the office represented in dependency court at the time.

Gaining trust

Barnum's client — whose name is being withheld to protect her identity — had an unusual wish. The South Bay girl wanted to be placed in a foster home, even though social workers disagreed. From age 14, she had been a runaway, bouncing between homeless shelters and the streets before LACY took on her case. The girl, reporting years of beating and alcoholism in her home, wanted to go "anywhere but with my Dad."

Yet it took two years for the now 18-year-old to trust her attorney, and only because Barnum kept reaching out to her. As the pair sat on the teen's bed in a transitional housing program that afternoon, the girl hugged a stuffed doll from her Eeyore collection. Barnum asked if there was anything the court should know and confirmed they would appear at an upcoming hearing together.

"I want to see what the judge said, how she said it, what she looks like when she says it," the girl said. "I don't want to be told, 'Here's what's happening to me.'"


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