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Eight-month-old Angelo Marinda was dead. His 25-year-old father, Ronnie, was in jail accused of murdering him. And the press was pounding at the courthouse door. Reporters wanted to know why the child had died despite being under a juvenile dependency order. They wanted access to juvenile proceedings to know what would happen to Ashley, the deceased boy’s 2-year-old sister. Would the girl be reunited with her mother — whose boyfriend shook Angelo to death during an unsupervised, Christmas-time visit to their Daly City home? And even more importantly: Why had social workers OK’d the visit for a baby who kept returning with bruises — and why hadn’t the judge intervened? The press wanted a front-row seat for the case, but the family’s lawyers saw nothing but journalistic vultures and vigorously opposed opening the court. The ultimate decision rested with Marta Diaz, the supervising juvenile court judge of San Mateo County. It was a quandary the 49-year-old judge didn’t take lightly. She was horrified and angered that a foster child had died under her watch, but even so, opening dependency proceedings to the press was a big step. For the most part, juvenile court hearings, especially dependency matters, are held out of the public eye in California. Judges can open their courts only if the public has a “direct and legitimate interest” in a particular case and if press access isn’t harmful to the child’s interests. Advocates of greater public and press access say opening juvenile courts will provide a watchdog on the actions of a system that spends billions in taxpayer dollars and sometimes fails to give the children in its care adequate protection. Giving the public the ability to keep a closer eye on juvenile judges, caseworkers, families and children, they say, may help prevent tragedies like the one that occurred in the Marinda case. At any given time, California judges are responsible for the care of roughly 90,000 dependent children, most of them abused or neglected, state Department of Social Services records show. The state spends about $3.7 billion a year on dependent children — $1.7 billion for foster care, and about $2 billion for social services. But admitting the press and public to juvenile courts — for both dependency and delinquency proceedings — is an issue that’s created a seemingly unbridgeable chasm among children’s advocates. Although most states still keep them closed, at least 13 have thrown their juvenile courtroom doors open. California hasn’t joined their ranks, though Angelo’s untimely, and preventable, death has re-ignited the debate. The arguments fall along familiar lines: Some say open courts would hold county child care systems more accountable and expose corrupt judges or inept social workers. Opponents contend open courts have led to no increased vigilance in other states and that the loss of privacy would be psychologically crippling for kids put on public view. Those arguments were on full display at a hearing on opening Ashley Marinda’s custody case. It took place the morning of Jan. 21 in Diaz’s San Mateo courtroom high on a hill above Interstate 280. Ordinarily, the judge might have rejected the press out of hand, but as she indicated from the bench that day, this was no ordinary case. The system had failed Angelo , and Diaz wanted to know why. Had incompetence and oversights within the child care agency contributed to Angelo’s death? There also were worries that 22-year-old Lady Rajan Diesta might not be a fit mother for Ashley, considering Angelo had suffered bruises and broken bones as early as 12 days old, and Ashley had shown up at a doctor’s office with abrasions and missing teeth. “Obviously this proceeding is part of a larger decision-making process about what’s going to happen to this child,” said Lisa Sitkin, a Steinhart & Falconer associate representing the San Francisco Chronicle . “And the case of this child’s brother has opened up a lot of questions about how that process takes place, what occurs in it, how the decisions get made.” Even so, the family’s lawyers argued, press coverage would only subject the mother and daughter to more pain and embarrassment. “We’re constantly bombarded by the press for their interests, poking into situations that are very painful and sensitive for the actual participants,” Redwood City solo practitioner Juris Dumpis, who represented the child, told Diaz. “And I think the press’s presence in this proceeding leads more to that sort of sensationalistic, voyeuristic interest in these proceedings, and that’s a concern for me.” Diaz, whom friends and co-workers say was devastated by Angelo’s death, took little time in making up her mind. The press would be allowed access. “It is a matter of public interest as to how these dependency hearings are conducted,” she declared, “especially when, based on a release of the records, there are questions as to whether the process worked, whether this child was, in fact, protected by the agency charged with her protection and by the courts which assumed her care.” “I don’t see any downside to allowing access to the press,” she said. “I see a huge plus in that the public, which pays the taxes which pays for the services which we use to reunify and run the agencies charged with the welfare of these children, those taxpayers deserve to know their money is well spent.” On April 3, after several open hearings, Diaz issued a scathing report, condemning the child care system — and herself — for failing little Angelo, and sending the county on a soul-searching quest for improvements. ‘A SYSTEM THAT SHOULD BE ACCOUNTABLE’ The concept of opening juvenile courts got some press in recent months when David Sanders, the newly installed director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, went on record saying he favors the idea. “In general, we are a system that should be accountable to the public,” he says, “and the public needs to know [about the court's operations] for us to be accountable.” Sanders came from Minnesota, whose chief justice opened up several juvenile courts as a pilot program a few years ago. Sanders headed up the child welfare system in Hennepin County, the largest in Minnesota. “We were able to provide much more information and were more accountable for our decisions. Social workers knew anybody could be in the courtroom and they needed to make sure what they were doing was defensible,” Sanders says. “We ended up with a stronger system, and there was much more accountability. There was not a downside to it.” Even a pilot program might be out of the question in California, though. There is no current movement to open the courts; the state Supreme Court isn’t likely to intervene as did Minnesota’s; and anyone who tries for legislation would face great odds and strong opposition. The last bill that would have opened California’s juvenile courts — 2000′s Senate Bill 1391 — foundered badly, even though it was introduced by former Sen. Adam Schiff, then-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Juvenile Justice, and had the full backing of the Judicial Council of California, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and several children’s groups. J. Terrence “Terry” Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition in Sacramento, says that wasn’t surprising. Bills that even hint at cracking juvenile court privacy can face tough going, he says. He notes child welfare advocates this year strongly opposed a bill that would have held counties liable for dependent children who are sexually abused. Their opposition came after the bill — which is still pending — was amended to allow the public to obtain the name, date of birth and date and cause of death of deceased foster children. Cause of death was eventually deleted, leaving only the other information. “In fact,” Francke says, “we had to fight to get this much and, finally, I think we shamed the opposition by saying all we’re asking for is the information that would be on the child’s tombstone.” (A Department of Social Services study concluded that 66 dependent children died in 1999 and 2000, with 25 of those deaths ruled homicides.) Oregon was the first state to open its juvenile courts to the public in 1980, and at least 12 others have followed. More are likely to follow suit as newspapers, such as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette , mount campaigns to end the secrecy and as groups such as the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the National Child Abuse Coalition voice support. In backing Schiff’s bill in 2000, the Judicial Council said opening the courts would “ensure public confidence” in the dependency process. “It would instill the perception that there is nothing to hide and therefore place the court (and the entire child welfare system) in a more favorable light.” As Jean-Paul Jassy, an associate at Los Angeles’ Loeb & Loeb who has handled many juvenile court access cases for the media, says: “Secrecy only breeds greater misunderstanding.” But openness, foes say, would expose children — especially the innocents who are in dependency proceedings only because of their parent’s faults — to harsh publicity that could be emotionally harmful for life. “How many newspapers who interview these children provide free psychological counseling for the children who are re-abused by additional questioning?” asks Whittier Law School Professor William Patton, one of the nation’s fiercest opponents of open juvenile courts. “Ask each state which has opened its hearings,” he says, “how much it increased its state budget to provide psychotherapy to their abused children who had to face the press and public in court and again in the press.” Shannan Wilber, executive director of San Francisco’s Legal Services for Children, says the California system should stay as it is, with the presumption being that juvenile proceedings are closed to the public unless a compelling reason is raised. “If somebody could show me a system that’s been improved by the media attending juvenile court proceedings,” Wilber says, “I’d be surprised. “We have a system that permits people to attend when they have a legitimate interest,” she adds. “Why isn’t that sufficient?” Those kind of arguments don’t fly with Francke of the California First Amendment Coalition. “When was the last time you’ve seen a news story talking about how ‘now it can be told the trouble that Johnny Nobody got into 10 or 15 years ago?’” he says. “It’s no more a risk to privacy or reputational damage than are the often-embarrassing pictures of us in our high school yearbooks. “The arguments for privacy that are just swallowed uncritically by so many people in the juvenile justice system are, on close examination, often misapplied,” Francke maintains, “and always a convenient cover for adults who may or may not have been fulfilling their responsibilities.” WHEN THE RUBBER HITS THE ROAD Judge Diaz’s decision to open the court and to publicly criticize the San Mateo County child services bureaucracy hasn’t endeared her to some in county government and the legal community. Diaz appeared to pull no punches in her report, laying low just about everyone involved. Her sharpest rebukes, though, were reserved for the San Mateo County Human Services Agency, which she said placed more emphasis on “preserving working relationships and smoothing over potential disputes” than protecting Angelo Marinda. “No other public agency in this court’s recollection has demonstrated such a high degree of isolationism and arrogance,” Diaz said. The judge, it seems, had as many problems getting access to information as the public and press who try to find out about juvenile court matters. Diaz, in her April report, said she was particularly disturbed by county officials’ failure to respond to repeated discovery orders. That, Diaz said, indicated officials “desired to interfere with the court’s obligation to investigate the matter.” Dependency proceedings are typically initiated, as they were in Angelo’s case, after reports from police, doctors or child protective services that a child has been abused or neglected. After a hearing at which the parents and their child are represented by separate counsel, a judge can declare the child a dependent. In some cases, the child continues to live with the parent, with visits from a social worker. In other cases, like Angelo’s, the child is placed in temporary foster care, under the supervision of social workers. The court can move to terminate parental rights, but in many cases the law first requires efforts to reunify the family. Social workers arrange visits to monitor the parents’ progress and instill parenting skills and responsibility. In Angelo’s case, Judge Diaz outlined repeated lapses in judgment by employees of the human services agency. And she was particularly galled that social worker Amy Huber authorized Angelo’s final deadly unsupervised visit with his parents despite being well aware of serious injuries Angelo sustained during two visits in the previous month. “To fail to cancel plans for an overnight unsupervised visit of several days duration under these circumstances is mind boggling,” Diaz wrote in her report. The judge, who can’t talk about the specifics of the case because it’s still pending, says that, in general, she feels personally responsible for the safety of children in her court’s care. “I really believe fundamentally that when I adjudge someone a ward of the court or a dependent child, I am in the parent’s place,” she says. “I am taking these children under my aegis and saying I am effectively their parent.” Working with child services agencies and other organizations involved with juvenile court is a partnership, Diaz says. But in the end, her orders must be paramount. “If I have someone come in and help me, I expect my desires and the children’s safety to be the goal,” she says. “When the rubber hits the road, I make orders and I want them carried out.” Diaz was ticked off in the Marinda case when officials of the human services agency seriously questioned her authority to conduct an inquiry into the events leading to Angelo’s death or open the hearings to the public. In e-mails and in staff meetings, Stuart Oppenheim, the director of the agency’s child welfare branch, accused Diaz of trying to run his department and said that something needed to be done to protect the staff from the judge’s “non-provoked abuse.” “No act by an outside party,” Oppenheim said in an e-mail referring to Diaz, “will undermine our confidence in ourselves or one another.” That infuriated Diaz. In her report, she said the agency’s “us-versus-them mentality,” displayed a “fundamental misunderstanding” of the court’s and agency’s roles. “When those in charge of a public agency create and control a culture within a bureaucracy which leads subordinates to believe that there is no outside accountability, the situation is rife for abuse,” she said. The principals in the case aren’t talking. Maureen Borland, director of the San Mateo County Human Services Agency, declined comment, as did Juris Dumpis, who represented Ashley’s interests; Redwood City solo Margaret Copenhagen, counsel for Diesta; and Redwood City solo Kevin Thurber, the father’s lawyer. However, Diaz’s report spawned a blue-ribbon committee of judges, lawyers and social workers whose mission is to find out what went wrong in the Marinda case and how to make improvements to prevent similar tragedies. A report is due this fall. Some urgency was added with the death of a second child under the protection of the county’s child welfare services. On July 2, 18-month-old Billy Joe Crawford Jr. was pronounced dead at San Francisco General Hospital. Eighteen-year-old Michael Edmondson, who lived with the boy’s mother, Kristina Watkins, 19, was charged with murder. San Mateo County Counsel Thomas Casey III, who helped appoint the committee, says members will be “looking not only at the department of children’s services, but the court’s role, the lawyers’ role, and looking at whether there should be changes in state law.” Open courts, a heated issue in the Marinda case, are almost certain to be discussed. One member of the committee, Jill Duerr Berrick, a professor at UC-Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare, says there are good reasons related to confidentiality for keeping juvenile courts closed shops. “The challenge that poses, however, is that the complicated nature of these cases and the significant burden for the agencies serving these families are largely hidden from public view,” she says. “And I think that contributes to this population being hidden from policymakers’ view and from citizens’ concern. “So the downside,” she says, “is that the children whom I consider to be the most vulnerable in society and in need of public support are the ones who are kind of invisible.” Judge Diaz agrees that the financial resources desperately needed by juvenile courts could go unmet as long as their needs aren’t discussed. “[Kids] don’t have a lobby,” she says. “They can’t march to Sacramento. They have to depend on the adults.” LIFE- AND- DEATH SITUATIONS San Mateo County Supervisor Michael Nevin says there was some initial “Monday morning quarterbacking” over Diaz’s blunt report, but he felt she got it right. “This was a life-and-death situation. And this is the most important thing we can do as a government,” he says. “That kid fell through the cracks. We, the system, let that child down.” While San Mateo County tries to figure out what led to the deaths of little Angelo and Billy Joe, so will the state Department of Social Services. “We always investigate when there is a death in child welfare services,” says Sacramento-based DSS spokesman Andrew Roth, “and it’s my understanding we are investigating those two cases at this point in time.” The agency doesn’t conduct a criminal investigation, he says, but looks at the entire system to see whether any wrong steps were taken, and what to do to prevent any future deaths. That investigation isn’t likely to include examining the effect of open courts, and no one can say for certain that an open juvenile court system would have saved Angelo. But proponents say it sure wouldn’t hurt to give open courts a try. And Diaz obviously felt the county’s dirty laundry needed airing. “The juvenile court judge has a greater responsibility than human services or anyone else,” says Margaret Kemp, a San Mateo County Superior Court judge who ran the juvenile court before Diaz. “The judge’s responsibility is to protect the children in [her] care. “To have a child die makes you feel terrible,” Kemp adds. “[Diaz] said to me, ‘It’s not going to happen again on my watch.’” Tragedy’s Timing

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