Last week I went down to the Edelman Children's Court, which is the court for dependency cases in Los Angeles County. I spoke to a lawyer from the Children's Law Center (CLC), the people who represent almost every child in the foster care system, and was permitted to observe the proceedings in a couple of the courtrooms.
CLC has approximately 120 attorneys. The average caseload size is over 200 children each. Whew! The lawyers are often the most consistent person in a child's life, as social workers change frequently and kids are repeatedly moved from one placement to another.
The hearings I observed were review hearings. These children had been removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect and taken into foster care at least six months earlier. Their cases were ongoing. This is standard procedure, a follow up, to see if parents were taking the necessary, mandated steps to enable their children to return home, such as drug and alcohol rehab classes, anger management classes, or finding a stable place to live.
The judges were deciding if a child could return home, or if a parent would be allowed to visit their children, how often, for how many hours a week, and where.
The third floor waiting area, which is the size of a train station, was filled.
Mothers, fathers, uncles, cousins, friends, and kids of every age, talking, playing games, doing homework, chasing each other, doing anything to fill up the time till their case was heard. Many had 2 hour bus rides to get there and had to be present all day. This was an average day at Children's Court where each of the 20 judges hears 20 to 30 cases a day.
The court proceedings themselves were low key and intimidating at the same time, despite the presence of stuffed animals and Star Wars posters. The cases take on average 10 to 20 minutes. The long table facing the bench is crowded with the children and their lawyer or lawyers, the parent or parents and their lawyers, an interpreter if necessary, the lawyer for the Dept of Children's Services, and behind them the social workers involved in the case.
There wasn't a lot of drama. It was all remarkably unremarkable, especially when you think that each decision will hugely affect a child's life and a family's future.
At this moment there are 25,000 kids in foster care in Los Angeles County. I know that children are very resilient and find ways to adjust to all sorts of things, but it's truly sad to see great numbers of children jostling in and out of court like it was just another day.
I was invited back to visit Judge Marguerite Downing in her chambers. Judge Downing is a confident, down to earth woman, with years of experience as a lawyer for juveniles and a judge. She seems quite astute at sizing up the people who come before her. She told me that she thought that many of the families she sees have problems that come and go. Most have other family members who could step in to care for the children when they are taken from their homes, and that this would be the best situation for these kids. The problem is that very often the regulations for fostering a child are too tough to be met by the family... for example, a house that doesn't have the required amount of space. So the kids end up in foster homes with unfamiliar people, separated from their siblings and away from relatives who know them. Often parents are mandated to take classes they can't afford and have no way of getting to.
Even visitation can be tough... for example, in a hearing I watched, the Dept of Children's Services recommended that the father and the mother be allowed to have unsupervised visits with their children at separate times, in a neutral setting, for three hours a week each. This particular mother didn't drive. Her husband was her ride. Their 4 children were not living together. They were placed with different families in neighborhoods far from where the parents lived. The judge questioned how it would be possible to continue trying to parent the children with these restrictions. She ruled that the parents could visit together in a neutral setting for 6 hours a week, for now. Another hearing was scheduled in 6 months time.
There's a big controversy over Children's Court's presiding judge, Michael Nash's recent decision to open the courtrooms to the media, unless a compelling case is made to close it in the best interest of the child or children involved. Some people like this decision because they say it will bring more accountability to the courts and the Child Welfare system, while some are against it on the grounds that it opens the lives of children who have already suffered mistreatment to further humiliation and is an invasion of their privacy.
I don't know yet which side I'm on, or if there is even a clear-cut yes or no answer. I just know it's pretty damn awful that such a huge population of children spend so much time in court and it doesn't even seem foreign to them. This shouldn't be.
California has a responsibility to protect its children, so we have this system set up to do that. It's an enormous system with a huge amount of people employed in service of it, and tons of rules and regulations designed to make everyone accountable. But, as we all know, a child can't be raised by a system.
The most important element of the foster care system is getting kids out of foster care and into a permanent placement so they don't have to spend their entire childhoods in courtrooms, wondering if they will ever have a place to call home.
Today I'm introducing Coty, a 16-year-old, from San Bernardino County. He's an articulate, empathetic boy who expresses himself through art and wants to be a lawyer. Coty is looking for a permanent home.
You can learn more about the children featured in these films and find more information about foster care adoption at ChildrensActionNetwork.org or by calling 800-525-6789.