Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What is government if words have no meaning?

This post is not about Jared Loughner--but it is curious that, of all his disjointed remarks quoted in media recently, this is the single challenge that can stand by itself as a worthwhile question. Words are exactly what define government, through and through, from debate and discourse to the "consent of the governed" to laws to judgments made according to those laws. Sometimes those words are hollow. Which brings me to an email I received today from the state director of Child and Family Services. A proposed bill amends the existing juvenile court act to create a proceeding by which a child aging out of foster care can elect--willingly--to stay in, subject to conditions (e.g. work or go to school), by means of a petition to juvenile court. The bill included provisions I thought were simply odd: there can be no grounds on which to pursue termination of parental rights, and reasonable efforts to reunify the child with his or her parents must have been made. Since the whole point is that the child is no longer a child, how could these elements be relevant? And how would they not--at least theoretically--create a basis upon which a child turning 18 could be denied access to these services based on what adults--his or her parents or the child welfare agency--had done or not done?

Here is the director's reply to my email asking about the bill language:
 The TPR and RE issues you address are simply language required by the feds to access IV-E funds-they determined the language….we just included it in the bill.  
TPR means termination of parental rights; RE means reasonable efforts. "Simply language required. . . to access [federal] funds". Language, by the way, that is incorporated into a court findings and order. I continue to delude myself into thinking that court findings and order reflect fact-finding and legal interpretation. Well, that they are supposed to, even when it is vividly apparent that too often they are mere word-formulas delivered in order to sanction executive action by the government (child welfare agencies are executive agencies) and ensure the agency has every possible opportunity to reimburse itself. Can anybody say "boilerplate"?

I doubt this will have much impact--any impact--on the situation of those youth who opt to stay with foster parents. (Some stay anyway, with or without agency involvement. ) A colleague in efforts to reform child welfare (and reform what passes for child welfare reform) is suspicious of the bill and its possible coercive uses. I'm sure we will see at least some misuse once it is passed (it will be passed, no doubt about that) and I suspect it will be the kind of misuse that is hard to pin down--but which you understand if you can see it close up. But what I read loudly and clearly into the director's email is that this is what "TPR and RE" always mean. They are word-vehicles for unlocking federal funds. The surest way to challenge a child welfare agency is to threaten the money supply. Do they profit from child welfare? I don't believe so, although some disagree.

But what is government when words have no meaning?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Crystal Martinez’s possessions are more precious than the average teenager’s. The 18-year-old, who as a child was abused and neglected by her biological family, has not had a permanent home since entering foster care at 7.

When she was sent to a San Antonio residential treatment center in July 2009, she had to leave almost everything she owned — books, stuffed animals and mementos jammed into boxes and shopping bags — with Texas Child Protective Services.

But when she went to claim them six months later, Ms. Martinez made a heartbreaking discovery: Most of what she had stored was gone.
Especially with teens, kids may enter foster care--or be moved from foster homes to institutional placements--because of alleged risk to property for the public. States create laws and rules to protect the possessions and property of foster parents, and to compensate them when their property is damaged or turns up missing.

The same regard does not hold for foster kids. Sometimes foster parents took away my son's things. An evangelical Christian couple objected to a book I gave him about the Supreme Court and took that; it was replaced by a Tim LaHaye rapture novel. A residential treatment center routinely emptied my son's room of his possessions as a disciplinary measure. I think the idea was to use the room as a seclusion method without having to put it on the books as seclusion or because the seclusion rooms were always full (there were ongoing seclusion and restraint issues). Many items, including Christmas gifts he'd never been allowed to use, vanished forever. Once a foster father had gone on a tear while my son was with me for a family funeral, checking my son's room for contraband. My son had learned the glories of hip-hop and rap from other foster youth (as a decidedly unpopular kid with geek parents, this was not in his listening repertoire pre-foster care), and they all had a few forbidden Dr. Dre and Eminem in their underwear drawers. The other boys' drawers were not searched that day. Besides hidden food (chips and candy bars), the foster father found my son's music stash. That night he gouged all 7 CD's with a fork. The rules for the placement were that if my son was upset about the foster home, I had to talk to the foster parents first. The foster father admitted what he had done. After a pause, he asked if I thought he had done the wrong thing. I told him about a contradband book my mother confiscated when I was 11--A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, which a neighbor had told her was not appropriate for a child to read. She didn't destroy it, she put it on the highest shelf in the living room bookcase. I found it a year later when I stood on a chair to dust the shelves. I snatched it to my chest, hid it under the mattress, and read in bed until nearly dawn. Then, when the foster care agency became involved, he--and they--denied it, while assuring me that what he had done was contrary to policy, which called for giving the items to his father and I to keep for him until he returned home. Then we could decide whether he should have them.

The music had been an ongoing issue for the foster father, who initially allowed the boys to buy whatever music they wanted. Later the foster father became squeamish about rap music. We had actually talked about this a few times. I reminisced about trying to get my dad to listen to my Jefferson Airplane album. I asked the foster father what he listened to when he was the boys' age. "Acid rock," he replied. He'd grown up with parents who were too busy drinking and fighting to pay much attention. My theory was that I wouldn't make a big deal about the music, but balance it with a diet of Bach and the Beatles. Anyway, what happened to the CD's wasn't about the music. The foster father was going through a lot of stress in his own family, while the agency had decided to waive restrictions on the number of special needs foster children placed there. Instead of one teenager, or a sibling pair, there were three. The oldest became a permanent placement. The middle acquired a history of serious criminal violence after returning home at 17, including a stabbing that sent him to prison at 18. My son was the youngest and smallest, and more than once the oldest would shove him or punch him, saying sotto voce, "Nobody saw it, so it didn't happen." He had also taught my son--10 at the time--to smoke pot from a bong.

When my son first entered care--suddenly and unexpectedly--I brought a bag of personal items to social services for him. Besides clothing and other necessities, the bag contained items I felt would help him link with home during those first weeks in a shelter facility (not a foster home) as a terrified 10-year-old. The bag languished in the caseworker's office for a week. Ever since then, I am incensed when I read about projects to provide foster children with teddy bears and fleece blankets--since, as we all know, they are routinely forced to flee the scene of their abuse with nothing but the clothing on their backs. That makes a better story, of course.

We gave our son a white gold ring, a match to the wedding rings his father and I wore, as a symbol of our unity as a family. His ring was stolen by a foster brother and lost. Other items he had--an mp3 player, toys--were also stolen by that foster brother. The foster parents in that home replaced the mp3 out of their own pockets. I knew the foster brother was very troubled (he was eventually institutionalized), I knew my son was entitled to the protection of his own possessions--but I also thought that the system should compensate my son the same way they officially compensate foster parents for property damage or loss by foster children. That compensation is enshrined in state laws. No laws exist to protect what belongs to foster children.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Wyoming child protection laws--due process, reasonable efforts, and part of our story

Wyoming's rate for removing children from their parents is low--much lower than nearby states (North and South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa--which have some of the nation's highest removal rates). Highlights of Wyoming's child protection laws:

Although Wyoming's child welfare courts are closed to the general public, parents can demand a jury trial. Any decision whether to file a petition alleging abuse or neglect must be made by the district attorney's office, not the child welfare agency. The court is required to ensure that reasonable efforts are made (not just to find that the agency has made them), and any decision that reasonable efforts are not required, or have not been made by the agency, must be made by the court. The court orders who will be on the child's planning team, and must include the child's psychiatrist or physician. The planning team--not the custodian acting along--decides what the reunification plan will be. The plan has to be based on issues and facts the court has ruled on, if any. If the plan changes, these changes have to be stated "with reasonable specificity" and approved by the court. 

How these provisions play out in real life, I don't know.  The jury provision is weak in one respect: if the jury finds the facts alleged in the petition to be true, this means the child is found to have been abused or neglected. The definition of neglect is broad:
"Neglect" means a failure or refusal by those responsible for the child's welfare to provide adequate care, maintenance, supervision, education or medical, surgical or any other care necessary for the child's well being. Treatment given in good faith by spiritual means alone, through prayer, by a duly accredited practitioner in accordance with the tenets and practices of a recognized church or religious denomination is not child neglect for that reason alone                      14-3-202(D)(vii)
 Conceivably, a jury might find allegations to be true even if it is questionable that the alleged facts would constitute neglect; perhaps preliminary hearings address this worry.

It may also be that the District Attorney's role, or that of the court-appointed multidisciplinary team, tends to rubber stamp child welfare agency decisions. Nonetheless, Wyoming statutes do provide some footing for a  parent defense attorney--if that attorney is willing--to challenge agency actions or court decisions.

Living under Wyoming laws would have made some difference to my son, my husband, and myself. Deprivation was adjudicated by the juvenile court (no jury in North Dakota!) based on lack of adequate housing.  But one of those kitchen-sink case plans was thrown at us. It included demands to participate in services for issues the court had specifically eliminated from its findings. As for housing, the best the agency could come up with was the requirement to obtain adequate housing. On the surface that might make sense, but the actual circumstances were complicated. My son's father had a home half paid for, but which needed repairs. He was unable to work due to a chronic illness which had recently been diagnosed and which was quickly becoming life-threatening. Without health insurance, assets he did have had to be earmarked for medical care. If he had decided to walk away from the house we was buying, those assets were enough to disqualify him for housing assistance. He needed a caregiver available 24 hours a day. The caseworker's expectation--not written, but verbally stated--was that I would simply apply for housing assistance myself and leave him behind. Of course, since I did not have custody of our son, I could not apply for family housing assistance. Housing assistance waiting lists were a year to two years long.

If I'd been the caseworker, I would have focused on two areas: the sick father and those home repairs that were most essential. While the caseworker nagged us for not getting counseling for my son's father and my not getting housing assistance to move out of the house, I was busy. First of all, my son needed help. As a "special needs" foster child with a foster father who refused to acknowledge his disability (while collecting premium "therapeutic" foster payments because of that disability) my son's welfare in foster care was greatly at risk. Although "therapeutic care" meant my son had an additional caseworker with the private agency in charge of the foster placement, that worker's unprofessional behavior ultimately got her fired--but we had to deal with it for a long time anyway. The school was denying special education services--a complicated, drawn-out battle on its own, and one the caseworker and her agency refused to get involved in. Later, when the placement (predictably) failed, my son was moved 140 miles from home, where the same problems continued to surface. In that placement, the therapeutic caseworker wasn't even on the job--that one had a chronic illness, went on medical leave, and the private agency did not assign a caseworker to cover the case, so my son did not even have a therapeutic case plan.  After 5 months he was moved again to a residential treatment center. There, a new set of problems emerged: mistreatment of my son (and other youth) by the treatment facility. Some mistreatment emerged as official licensing violations.  Meanwhile, his father regularly needed hands-on care at home, which grew to include special diets, help with bathing and other basic activities, scheduling appointments (eventually hundreds of miles from home). There was a long battle--which required a lawyer's help--to qualify him for disability benefits and, eventually, Medicare. In between all that was the house itself. My son's father managed to complete insulating the attic, saving on heating costs. A friend who helped him with that also replaced the kitchen sink and plumbing. I built and installed new kitchen cabinets and counters, replaced broken windows and screens, repaired a sagging porch and built new steps, sanded and varnished floors, and whatever else I could teach myself to do.

In spite of all that effort, our parental rights could have been terminated, simply because we did not comply with the recommendations of social services: parent counseling my son's father was too sick to participate in, chemical dependency evaluation he simply refused (the court had rejected the county's claims of chemical dependency). Non-cooperation with "recommendations" is enough for the court in North Dakota. In Wyoming, the multidisciplinary team would never have been able to write the case plan thrust on us for two years, because it was not supported by the original adjudication findings.

Of course, our rights were not terminated. Our first caseworker quit her job with the county. Her replacement took a step the first one never did: she filed "compelling reasons" not to terminate rights. (This is something only the agency can do; state law does not mention any provision for parents to petition the court to make such a finding.) This caseworker also confided (off the record) that there were people in the system who were "scared" of me. My battles on behalf of my son had created paper trails and resulted in outside investigations. I've learned that the last thing county agencies want is for this sort of thing to show up in the courtroom. Saving face--not safety of children--is what is ultimately paramount. Sometimes the question isn't whether a parent is "cooperative"--but what kind of skills and resources they can muster when compliance is out of the question. There is not enough leverage for us in the child welfare laws as written. Some of us can create the leverage child welfare laws don't provide--but you can bet that child welfare judges and referees won't hear anything about it. My "paper trails" involved regulatory agencies outside the child welfare framework, using state and federal regulatory resources. I didn't always win--but I caused scrutiny which was the last thing these agencies wanted. This tells me we need more scrutiny in the child welfare system by itself, including the child welfare courts. Those courts were not going to ensure due process, so I had to look elsewhere. 

Friday, December 24, 2010

J.W. and collective self-delusion

This case will be heard on January 27. Both parents are appealing the termination of parental rights. Only one appellant brief has been filed so far, and nothing from the appellee (Morton County Social Services).

According to the appellant brief, J.W.'s mother was found to have used meth before J.W. was born. She has been on probation, although the reason for probation is not specified. J.W. never went home with his mother. He  has lived with a couple in Kentucky (names are provided, no information about relationship) "against the advice of Social Services" but based on parent preference. That statement is odd--Social Services has had legal custody, after all. How did the arrangement come about? Did a juvenile court referee sanction the placement?

At any rate, the appellant brief doesn't have a lot to say. There has been no contact between parents and J.W. for the state reason that J.W. was too young to talk on the phone or read letters. What the brief does say is that J.W.'s mother has completed substance abuse evaluation and treatment and has never tested positive for drug use in the time--two and a half years--since the baby was taken into custody. It also says that the mother never believed she would ever be allowed to have her child. "Reasonable efforts" is not listed as an issue for appeal, but the appeal does claim that the juvenile court erred when it ruled that such efforts have been made.

The brief also mentions a probation revocation hearing--it doesn't say what the outcome was of the hearing, and curiously also says that the probation officer who filed for revocation also stated that J.W.'s mother had carried out probation requirements.

I don't know whether it is better legal strategy to say little in an appeals brief. Maybe it just means what is often the case--the lawyers don't get to know the clients well enough, and they are out of the picture completely (in most cases) in between the legal milestones. It's in those in-between stretches, when nobody is looking over their shoulders, that social services really makes its decisions. By the time the lawyer gets into the game, he or she is dealing--really--with abstractions. If J.W. thought nobody was ever going to let her have her baby, very likely things had been said somewhere along the line that made her believe that.

North Dakota law concerning reasonable efforts seems pretty darn loose to me. It is contained in a section of state law called the Uniform Juvenile Court Act, so much of the language is a verbatim copy of language from other states' statutes. But the laws do vary.

According to North Dakota law, reasonable efforts can stop when the court says it's ok--but they can also stop when the agency decides it's ok, no court action required. Sometime in between a deprivation hearing resulting in a foster care order, and the expiration of that order, an agency might do just that--decide it is not interested in pursuing reunification (and maybe has expected this all along). The decision may or may not be explicit. Sometimes case plans don't actually state whether the goal is reunification (this must be how it is that a social worker can testify that the plan was just to improve the parent as a person, not to get them and their child back together).

We need to get rid of statutory language empowering social services agencies to unilaterally decide they no longer have to make reasonable efforts. Period.

There's more: the law in North Dakota says that reasonable efforts have to be in compliance with federal Title IV-E and IV-B requirements--but it doesn't matter. As long as any court order is valid under all other sections of state law, non-compliance with federal law cannot void the order. Hard to know what the point is of even mentioning the federal requirements, isn't it? (Federal child welfare law does not confer a "private right of action" in federal courts either--so there really is no consequence to anyone if the agencies disregard federal provisions that might, in theory, support families.)

And a third problem with "reasonable efforts" in North Dakota: the courts seem to consistently find that such efforts have been provided. Of course, all we get to look at are the appeals cases--but I think you can pretty much tell the overall legal winds from what the appeals cases say.  But flying in the face of this persistent conceit are the federal child welfare reviews (and, currently, regional self-reviews the state is doing) which conclude that in a fairly large percentage of cases sampled, the agencies are not doing what they are supposed to do, especially in terms of involving families in case planning. Makes me think that collective self-delusion is a fairly pervasive phenomenon in our juvenile courts.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Falling through the potholes

A few weeks ago, on a subzero night, the phone rang. The friend who called knew somebody who needed a ride to a town 50 miles away--by 8 in the morning. It was already 8 in the evening.

I didn't make the drive--I was worried about the car battery (in fact, the alternator died a few days later) and it's been years since I wouldn't think twice about driving off into the sparsely-populated darkness on a frigid night. Not only that, I had to work in the morning, the company I work for has draconian requirements about time and our whole team had just been written up for "occurrences" such as logging on at our work stations 1 minute late.

I have to admit to some impatient thoughts during the conversation. My caller said the woman's baby is in foster care and thought she needed a ride because of a court hearing the next day. My first thought was that anybody who is trying to get a 50-mile ride from strangers late in the evening before a hearing stands precious little chance of getting her child back--especially since, as my caller told me, the parent is also homeless. Whatever the issues were, it was not likely a ride that night--or lack of a ride--would make or break any deal involving social services, lawyers, and juvenile courts.

But I did get the woman's cell phone number and called her. Here is her story:

She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder years ago. Hospitalizations?--she's had many, the last less than a year ago. She spent much of her adolescence in foster care and residential treatment. In fact, she turned 18 in residential treatment. She's had the same therapist and psychiatrist for several years and, it sounds like, stays on her medications. She and her mother don't get along. Work?--she said she worked for a few months a year ago at a long-term care facility, in the kitchen. The job had been arranged through some kind of program. Before that, she had worked briefly at a fast food restaurant. She'd given birth to a daughter 8 months ago. She was living with a boyfriend (who is actually the stepson of my caller, who is divorced from his father) who was not the baby's biological father--the actual father has never shown any interest in his offspring and there had been no relationship with him. The boyfriend has some kind of mental impairment himself and receives SSI benefits. Last spring, she says, she had left the baby with her mother. When she came to pick up the baby, her mother locked and blocked the doors. The baby's mother--I'll call her Georgianna--called 911. When the police arrived, Georgianna's mother unlocked the doors and denied having tried to prevent Georgianna from picking up the baby. Georgianna, it turned out, had a knife on her, and was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. She insists her mother was drunk but the police did not breathalyze her. In any event, the baby ended up in foster care--but not with Georgianna's mother. More recently, Georgianna left the boyfriend because of violence on his part. She reported domestic assault and has a restraining order against him. But now she has no place to live.

I asked if she has any income, such as SSI or SSDI. No, she said, she has asked her caseworkers about this and has been told she is "too young". Nonsense, I told her, SSI has nothing to do with age--and her history sounded like SSI would be a slam dunk.

Georgianna has, apparently, been visiting her baby regularly. The baby, who was born 2 weeks pre-term, has had some developmental problems and, at 8 months, is just beginning to sit up and roll over. She receives infant development services as a result. I was impressed to hear Georgianna attends and participates in the infant development services regularly. The program Georgianna's baby is in comes under federal special education laws. A baby getting these services has to have an individual plan--and the law requires agencies to involve parents in creating that plan, along with providing services in natural settings (such as the home) as much as possible. But if the baby is in foster care, oftentimes parents are brushed aside either by agencies who don't bother with parent involvement, or in favor of foster parents.

Georgianna said she did not have a hearing the next morning, she had a visit scheduled, along with an infant development session in the afternoon. With no place to live in the town where the baby is, social services and the courts are--and also where her own therapist and psychiatrist are--she has been staying with friends here, 50 miles away. She complains that social services listens to everything her mother tells them--and shares information with her mother. Georgianna is an adult in her early 20's. Her mother comes to permanency plan meetings (held quarterly)--over Georgianna's objections. This sounds crazy, I told her. Social services did not place the baby with grandmother, presumably is not considering permanent placement with the grandmother--and the two have a conflicted relationship.

Some people might think Georgianna is a likely train wreck who should not be entrusted with a baby. She has bipolar disorder, she's homeless, she was just involved with a boyfriend who turned out to be violent, she has no income or transportation, she did jail time in connection with the episode at her mother's.

Here's the flip side: no alcohol use (the scoff I heard from her when I asked about that was authentic). Some marijuana use in the past, but they've had her do UA's for 7 months and, after an initial positive test, all have been clean. Long-term relationship with therapist and psychiatrist, stays on her medications and knows what they are. Graduated from high school--since she spent her teen years in foster care and had a serious mental illness and left foster care when she aged out at 18, this alone means she beat odds 5 to 1 against her (these odds come from studies done by child welfare research centers). Gets to regular visits with her daughter--even though it has meant scrounging rides involving long distances. Gets to the infant development sessions and can report her daughter's developmental issues. Goes to her child's permanency plan meetings. All with, essentially, no resources of her own.

Since Georgianna left a domestic violence situation and reported it to police, she should qualify for a housing assistance waiver. The region also offers housing assistance to persons with mental illness who receive case management services through the regional human service agency. Georgianna could keep her private therapist and psychiatrist (she apparently has Medicaid) but add a mental health case manager in the regional system. A component could be added to her reunification plan requiring social services to help with referrals. A case manager would have obligations to Georgianna herself--which child welfare does not. But those obligations could help Georgianna reunite with her daughter.

With her psychiatric history, someone should be helping her apply for SSI. Housing and an income of her own might well be just the additional ballast she needs--and keep her from having to depend on friends or problem boyfriends for basic food and shelter. I know several women with similar histories who have raised children successfully because they did have that ballast.

North Dakota Human Services reports statistics each year on its child welfare system. In 2009, 189 of the "services required" cases (i.e. substantiated reports of child abuse or neglect) were families without adequate housing. Of those, 11 families received housing assistance as a result of child welfare agency involvement.

I asked Georgianna if she has an attorney. She was represented in the initial shelter care and deprivation proceedings by a lawyer from across state lines, who lives 60 miles from her hometown (where the baby is). That's 60 miles in an entirely different direction than Fargo, where she was staying when she looked for a ride.   She said he told her to admit to deprivation because there was nothing else she could do. (How often have parents heard that legal advice?) Of course, based on North Dakota's public defender system, once deprivation was ruled, he was off the case. She has nobody to help advocate for the services she really needs--services which is it well within the power and capacity of the system (in this case, anyway) to provide.

In a situation like this, there is no need to strum the heartstrings or rage about injustice. Seems to be a plain look at public agencies we authorize and pay for not doing a competent job. If it was a street department, it would be the kind where the potholes never get filled even though it plants flowers by the curb. We wouldn't put up with it. We don't see the child welfare potholes too often--they're too well hidden.

System biases against fathers?

Yesterday, the  North Dakota Supreme Court announced its decision regarding A.B., or Abel Blotsky, a little boy whose mother died after a beating by her husband last March. In short order, Burleigh County (ND) social services petitioned to terminate the parental rights of Abel's father, who lived in Washington and was a former boyfriend of the mother. The mother had another former boyfriend as well--one whose father, Kevin Cramer, happens to be a prominent North Dakota GOP politician and current Public Service Commissioner.

Although Abel's father sought to gain custody of his son, he was dismissed as a parent right from the start. Social  Services "misplaced" contact information after he called them. He was not served notice of hearings. Although Social Services later testified he had not completed their recommendations, the fact is they had already decided to terminate his rights and turn the child over to unrelated individuals who had clout. In court, Social Services would testify--and the prominent politician's lawyer would argue--that Abel's father had taken no action even though Abel apparently lived in an unstable, violent environment from the day he was born. The politician should know--his son was involved with the child's mother for awhile himself. The mother, her brother, the mother's husband, and the politician's son all had criminal records even before she was killed. The politician and his wife would take in the child when his mother asked them to care for him. They were certainly in a position to act--and they likely knew that the mother operated a small daycare (perhaps unlicensed) in her "unstable, violent" home.

This termination was accomplished in record time, as was its appeal.

According to the father's attorney, he had completed a home study which found him to have a stable home.

There is plenty of room for concern here--simply because one would think that, if one parent of a child dies, the other parent--even one who lives several states away--should be able to immediately assume custody unless there has been a prior finding that parent has deprived or harmed the child. But money and status do make a difference.

The case also illustrates the problems faced by non-resident fathers when a child is removed from the care of its mother for whatever reason. Child welfare and juvenile court systems are, in many ways, inherently structured in a way that often biases them against nonresident fathers, particularly fathers who can't manage to pull off the alpha male role.


(In the Interests of A.B.)

(American Bar Association information about representing and advocating for non-resident fathers in child welfare proceedings)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Judges favoring open child welfare courts

In an editorial in the LA Times, Michael Nash, the presiding judge of dependency court (child welfare court) in Los Angeles County has it right on the money. Quoting the editorial,

Judges and others involved in child welfare, Nash said last week, "need to be accountable to the public we serve." The current emphasis on closed hearings, he added, has worked to undermine the primary responsibility of dependency courts: the protection of children. "The main entity that's protected by closing these proceedings is the system itself," he argued. And that system, as Nash noted, "is far from perfect."
More than 20 states presently conduct proceedings in their dependency courts openly, along the lines that Nash proposes for California. Oregon has a respected system, as does Minnesota. Their successes have helped convince those who once feared openness that it in fact has protected children, not exposed or harmed them. California has missed previous chances to lead in this area. Now, it should catch up with those that have paved the way. Then, at last, the children of this county and others will know that their fates will not be sealed in secret, but that those whose responsibility it is to care for them will be held accountable for doing it well.
A decade ago, a Minnesota task force consisting mostly of judges noted that it is hard to claim child welfare courts are based on community standards for the rearing of children when the community is barred from the proceedings. The task force, too, concluded that accountability was best served by opening the state's juvenile courts. A small minority of the task force feared children's lives being smeared across the 6:00 news. It never happened, and Minnesota's juvenile courts remain open ten years later.

It's time North Dakota did the same.