Saturday, April 19, 2008

Youth in foster care deserve a voice in court

Dave Jones, a California Democrat, recently introduced legislation to bring foster children into the court hearings that decide their fates after allegations of abuse and neglect.

This bill was designed to address Broken Families, Broken Courts reports that, throughout California, hearings in the courts that oversee the foster care system are often held without the child present.

As its author states: "This bill sends a strong message that kids need to be a more integral part of the system."

Current law gives children the legal right to attend but does not require officials to make a strong effort to get the children there.

This is a terrible oversight because youth people have a very strong viewpoint about what is and is not working in the child welfare system, and can thoughtfully articulate their own interests.

Jones' bill, AB 3051, requires all California judicial officers to postpone hearings if children 10 years old and older have not been properly notified and offered the chance to attend.

Some lawyers are hoping that the language of this bill will be revised so that any children ages 4 years old and older will be able to attend.

One key proponent of this revision is Leslie Heimov, executive director of the non-profit Children's Law Center of Los Angeles.

Her reasoning is that, "For older kids, there's a benefit to the child, but for younger kids there's a benefit to the court. They bring the case alive. They're ruling on a person, not a piece of paper."

Jones said alterations of his bill are expected, and that he intends the age reference to be "a floor, not a ceiling."

Culture Change
In order for this bill to have an impact, a significant culture change will be required in many California courts. Some judges and lawyers believe children can be disruptive, or shouldn't miss school to attend court. Others fear they will be bored or traumatized by things they hear.

I agree with Presiding Judge Michael Nash of the Los Angeles Juvenile Court: "Children are the most important persons in our process. And they should be seen and heard."

de Sá, Karen. Bill would strengthen kids' voices in foster care court: Bill would require they're told about right to attend hearings. Mercury News, March 7, 2008.

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