Los Angeles foster youth rally against open juvenile court hearings

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A California nonprofit and its allies, including several former foster care youth, gathered on the steps of a juvenile court Monday morning. The group was there to voice their opposition to a proposal to open court hearings to the general public.

California Youth Connection, an organization focused on issues affecting foster youth, organized the rally at Edelman Children's Court. They're concern that Presiding Judge Michael Nash's proposed blanket order to automatically open juvenile court hearings to the media and the public, would put youth at risk.

Children's Law Center of California executive director Leslie Heimov called Nash's proposal "a solution in search of a problem," in her speech.

Heimov said at a recent legislative hearing, the administrative office of the court indicated that one of the biggest problems court face is lack of information, one that could be worsened with the impending change.

"We already face an uphill battle in our effort to have parents and children feel safe enough to talk freely and openly about their family situation," she said. "The presence of strangers over the child’s objection will only reduce the flow of information."

Heimov went on to say that seemingly innocuous topics presided over in court should be kept private because they can be painful experiences for clients.

"We teach our children not to ask other people questions as simple as: 'How much do you weigh?'; 'How old are you?'; 'Why do you have that scar on your face?'" she said. "But under this order, even when they ask for privacy, children who are in court because they are victims may be told 'All of your business is the public's business.'"

Former foster youth Lucias Bouge, 19, said opening court hearings to the public breach an individual's right to privacy.

"It's just not okay – there are children that are raped and taken from their parents because of really traumatizing situations, and to open that up to the public is just a complete invasion of privacy and our personal rights," he said at the rally.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Nash called for open hearings in an effort to improve accountability and transparency for a branch of the legal system that handles child abuse, child neglect and foster care placements.

The Times reported that Nash believes the courts can be opened without new legislation.

"There is a lot that is not good [in the dependency courts], and that's an understatement," Nash said earlier this year at a hearing in Sacramento on legislation that would have opened dependency courts. "Too many families do not get reunified [...] too many children and families languish in the system for far too long. Someone might want to know why this is the case."

Heimov said that under current law, judges already have the discretion to open proceedings to select members of the public on a case-by-case basis. Media can be granted access if they give full disclosure of who will be present.

"The stakes are incredibly high here. Once a child's name and extremely intimate details of their lives or their picture are made public, the bell cannot be unrung," Heimov said.

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