For many people in California, the term “foster kid” has connotations of delinquency and trouble — an unfair assessment for children who through no fault of their own find themselves removed from their families of origin, placed with different families and declared dependents of the state.
Recently, AB 73, a bill to open dependency proceedings to the public, passed out of the Judiciary Committee by a 10-0 vote and may soon be voted on by the full Assembly. The goals of the bill — increased transparency and accountability in the dependency court system — are laudable and necessary.
However, when put in balance with the crucial privacy of children being served, I believe the bill would do more harm to dependent children than benefit.
By opening dependency proceedings to the public, I fear we risk losing the last shred of dignity these children may have by allowing the community at large to know their identities. It is difficult for me to imagine a scenario where it is in the best interest of children for the public to know that they are dependents of the state, are in foster care or that their parents abused or neglected them, sometimes in brutal and humiliating ways.
Consider how children would feel if everyone in their school and all their playmates knew the details of their situation. Additionally, this information could be used by criminal child abusers to further exploit these vulnerable children. While AB 73 contains language prohibiting mentioning last names, parents and children often attend their hearings and may be recognized, particularly in small communities. Public scrutiny of hearings would also tend to discourage the attendance and participation of parents, a crucial step for the family to reunify.
Another mechanism exists and is already in place in dependency courts throughout California that ensures transparency and accountability. This is the Court Appointed Special Advocates program.
CASAs are volunteer community members from all walks of life trained to follow a child through the ordeal of a dependency case. These people are not child welfare professionals, and their only focus is the best interest and well-being of the children in the case to which they have been assigned.
The CASA has access to all proceedings of the dependency court, records of Child Welfare Services, schools, and medical and mental health professionals pertaining to their case. The CASA gathers this information and submits a written report directly to the judge. The CASA monitors what Child Welfare Services is doing to obtain a permanent, safe home for the children in the most efficient way possible. It has the ability to bring any concerns to the members of the child’s team, including the social worker and the dependency court judge, and verify that any court-ordered action is completed.
The goal of the juvenile dependency system is to protect children and move them as quickly as possible to a permanent, safe home, with the family of origin if possible, or to adoption, guardianship, or other permanent arrangement.
If dependency proceedings are made public, I fear the public would focus on the most notorious and brutal cases and still ignore the majority of the children in the system. I do not see how this arrangement would benefit children or their families. The CASA program is dedicated to ensuring the dependency court system is accountable and working for the best interest of the children involved.
If you have concerns about the right of children to privacy, please contact your Assembly member about AB 73.
Find out more
For more information on CASA programs, call 541-6542 or visit slocasa.org.
Pete Skarda is an advocate supervisor with CASA of San Luis Obispo County; however, this Viewpoint is his personal opinion and is not intended to reflect CASA’s position.