Los Angeles County Juvenile Court proceedings will be open to regular media coverage, but not to the public, unless a compelling case is made to close it, the court’s presiding judge ruled this week.
Prior to the ruling by Judge Michael Nash, the dependency side of the court, which focuses on cases of child abuse, foster care and adoption proceedings, had been largely closed to news organizations.
Under the new order, parties involved in the proceedings must prove closing the case to the press is in the best interest of the child, or children, involved. The public may only be present in the courtroom at the request of the child or if they prove “a direct or legitimate interest in the case or work of the court,” according to the order.
Nash released a draft of the order in November, sparking debate among members of the child welfare community, according to the Los Angeles Times.
"[The order] enables news organizations to fully report on issues to whether a child stays with a family or is placed in foster care and the various considerations that go into that," said Jeff Glasser, one of the attorneys representing the newspaper.
The order will provide more transparency in courts, bringing problems within the child welfare system to the public's attention, wrote Nash in the ruling.
Citing a 2010 editorial by the Los Angeles Times, Glasser said the point of public access to juvenile proceedings would not be used to pry into the life of a child, but to allow news organizations greater scrutiny of the child welfare system as a whole.
The order reinforces previous rulings such as San Bernardino County Dept. of Public Social Services v. Superior Court, where the court stated that though the primary discretion of juvenile courts should be the interests of minors, the press can “assist juvenile courts in becoming more effective instruments of social rehabilitation by providing the public with greater knowledge of juvenile court processes, procedures and unmet needs.” Nash's order states that because of this, members of the news media have a “legitimate interest in the work of the court."
Some advocates say opening the courts will endanger the privacy of children involved in the proceedings.
Leslie Starr Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, said the judge’s order conflicts with the state law.
“We are disappointed that the court issued the order so quickly as there has been no opportunity to address necessary protocols and procedures aimed at ensuring that the child's protection does not take a backseat to public and media access,” Heimov said in a statement.
She said the Children's Law Center of California is “exploring our options” in regards to an appeal.