Open up the juvenile courts

Allowing the public and media to attend would be good for all parties

There’s a saying in the newspaper business: Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Rot and corruption thrive in the dark, secret corners of government, which is why, with very few exceptions, the law ensures that journalists have access to public records and proceedings

One of those exceptions is juvenile court proceedings. Historically, journalists have been kept out of dependency hearings on the presumptive belief that they will violate children’s privacy, humiliating them when they’re highly vulnerable.

That sounds reasonable, but actually it’s a rationale for protecting a secret process that keeps taxpayers from knowing how their dollars are being spent, protects social workers who fail to act when children are in danger, and too often removes children from their homes for reasons that are minor at best.

Journalism’s code of ethics requires reporters to protect the identities of juveniles in the court system. Historically, they have withheld names and other identifying information to protect the innocent. There is no reason to believe they wouldn’t do so in juvenile court.

As Meredith J. Graham’s story in last week’s issue, “Fighting for their families,” indicated, Butte County has the highest rate-of-removal of children from their families in the state, according to an analysis by the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. We’d like to know why that is. But we’re forbidden access to Juvenile Court.

More than a dozen states have opened up dependency hearings, and the sky hasn’t fallen. The California Legislature considered a sunshine bill last year, AB 73, but Democrats caved under pressure from the social workers’ union, and the bill died in committee. Now Judge Michael Nash, who presides over the Los Angeles County Dependency Court, has issued a blanket order that hearings be open. An appeals court has upheld his action.

Eventually the sun will shine on all of California’s courts. History is on the side of transparency. The Legislature should dust off AB 73 and pass it.