Judge reaffirms press and public access to foster care proceedings

Top L.A. County judge reaffirms press and public access to foster care court proceedings

Los Angeles County court hearings to decide whether a potentially endangered child should be removed from his or her parents and placed in foster care will remain largely open to the press and public under a new judicial order. 

Superior Court Judge Michael Nash, who presides over the county's juvenile court, issued the order Friday in response to an appeals court decision that struck down a previous order opening the courts to public view. 

Under the new order covering all dependency hearings, Nash said judicial officers should ask attendees to identify themselves and state their interest in the case or the work of the court. Under the previous order, Nash had not required attendees always to identify themselves. 

Lawyers involved in the case will have the opportunity to argue that the press or public should be barred from the hearing, but the lawyers must show that the presence of the press or public harms a child's best interests. 

In March, a California appeals court ruled that Nash erred in his previous order. 

In a 2-1 decision, the appellate panel said the first blanket order opening the courts for hearings to decide whether children should be removed from their families and placed in foster care interfered with individual judges' discretion "to determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether a person may be admitted to the hearing based on a 'direct and legitimate interest in the particular case or the work of the court.'"

The appeal had been brought by a 15-year-old girl who challenged a judge's decision to allow a Los Angeles Times reporter to observe a hearing at which lawyers discussed whether she should be removed from her family after being assaulted by her stepfather.

Although The Times does not typically report identifying details about children in the dependency system, the girl's lawyers argued that the case was "particularly brutal" and that children her age are extremely sensitive about the possibility of personal information being shared.

In January 2012, Nash issued his first decree that dependency hearings, which had been presumptively closed for years, were now presumptively open to the press.

Leaders of the court-appointed law firm representing most of the county's foster children said they would not have objected to the first order if Nash had required attendees to identify themselves upon entering the courtroom.

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