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."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.
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.
It's time North Dakota did the same.