Presently in California, the public is excluded from the dependency courtroom unless the judge gives special permission for a non-party to be there. Dependency court is where child abuse and neglect proceedings take place. For approximately 50 years the courts have been closed to the public primarily to protect the minor’s privacy. However, there is an argument that because of the “secrecy” of these courts children’s rights aren’t always protected.
Assembly Bill, AB 73, addresses this issue and suggests that California try a four-year pilot program in which the courtroom would be presumptively open to the public as opposed to being presumptively closed which means they are closed but can be opened at the discretion of the court. In the twelve years I spent in juvenile dependency court I never saw a case opened to the public. However, there was an occasional exception which allowed individual members of the public in the courtroom. With the courts open to the public, some cases would be closed at the discretion of the presiding judge most likely at the request of the child (or child’s attorney).
According to the bill, “personally identifiable information” would not be disclosed in open court and the court would still have the discretion to have the child testify in chambers.
Nationally, only Pennsylvania and Oregon have open courts in dependency. Fifteen other states have presumptively open courts. Fifteen have presumptively closed dependency courts.
The concern for both sides is essentially the same–the potential harm to children. Opponents argue we need to keep the courts closed because the children have a right to privacy. Proponents argue that opening the courts will result in more public awareness and interest in child welfare services resulting in better services for the children.
What are your thoughts? Should California open the dependency courts to the public?