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Two years after an 8-month-old boy’s beating death raised a firestorm over San Mateo County’s child services system, high-ranking officials are moving to have the county’s juvenile dependency cases opened to the public. The county has petitioned the court to pull back the veil now surrounding dependency cases to give the public a better understanding of the child care network and to help hold everyone from judges to social workers more accountable for their actions. “What we would like to see is a system where [the courts] are open as a matter of course, subject to individual decisions, so there is not this air of secrecy,” San Mateo County Counsel Thomas Casey III said. “When it’s secret, there’s a natural tendency to say you are hiding something. We need to get past that.” If successful, San Mateo would become the only county in California to routinely subject dependency cases to public scrutiny. At least 13 states already open such proceedings. Opponents have already weighed in, arguing that the county’s proposal violates state law and pointing to studies indicating that open courts pose grave psychological dangers to frightened and abused kids. Supervising Juvenile Court Judge Marta Diaz will rule on the issue following an all-day hearing March 3. The proposal is unusual in that it’s being pushed by the county — in particular Casey, County Manager John Maltbie and Human Services Director Maureen Borland. Normally, it’s media, judicial or child-advocacy groups who seek to open the juvy courts. In fact, the county’s move is a complete turnaround from its original position after 8-month-old Angelo Marinda was beaten to death by his father during an unsupervised visit the day after Christmas in 2002. County officials fought a losing effort to keep hearings surrounding the child and his surviving sister closed. Shortly after Marinda’s death, a furious Judge Diaz took the rare step of opening up subsequent dependency hearings for the boy’s older sister, Ashley. She also issued a withering 54-page report in April 2003, harshly criticizing the entire child care system, including herself, for failing to heed all the signs — including broken bones and bruises — that indicated Angelo had suffered months of severe abuse. A year later, a five-member committee of judges and child welfare experts issued a short report recommending widespread changes in the county’s entire child protection system. The committee did not suggest opening up the dependency hearings, but Casey, Maltbie and Borland felt that was a natural next step. “Ongoing public access to the juvenile dependency system,” Casey wrote in his petition to the court, “would give the public a much more accurate picture of how the system actually works than does public access only to highly unusual, high-profile and tragic cases such as that of Angelo.” Last year, Ronnie Marinda was sentenced to 32 years to life in prison. Casey said now is the right time for the county to reverse course on its earlier closed-door policy. “We think if there was more awareness of what the system is like and what social services do, there would be more support,” he said. Perhaps, he added, it could even generate more financial backing from Sacramento, based on constituents’ demands for more and better services for children. In an attempt to blunt any opposition, the county suggests that all dependency proceedings should be open unless there is an objection by the child or a parent or guardian. Plus, if necessary, a standing order could be issued that conditions access by the public and press on agreements to keep confidential certain information, such as names and addresses. Both the San Mateo County Bar Association’s private defender program and William Wesley Patton, one of the nation’s staunchest critics of open access to juvenile courts, have filed papers to block the county’s petition. Patton, a professor at the Costa Mesa-based Whittier Law School Legal Policy Clinic, has written many articles on the subject and strongly argues as an amicus curiae that open courts stigmatize children by re-victimizing them. “The American Psychological Association, the United States attorney general and many California pediatric psychiatrists have found that child abuse victims are psychologically fragile,” he stated by e-mail. “And that stress, such as testifying before strangers or being exposed by the media will not only increase their ‘fear, anxiety, post-traumatic stress symptoms and depression,’ but will also make treatment more difficult.” Opponents call the proposal “bad public policy,” noting that it would establish a presumption that all dependency hearings are open. State law, they argue, is just the opposite, with the presumption that dependency cases remain closed unless there is good reason to open them. The law, however, gives judges the authority to open proceedings to the public if petitioned by people who “have a direct and legitimate interest in the particular case or the work of the court.” That’s the authority Diaz used in opening up hearings regarding Ashley Marinda. San Mateo solo practitioner Kevin Thurber, writing on behalf of the private defender program against the petition, argued that even if there is a compelling policy reason to change the law, “the simple fact is that it is exclusively the domain of the Legislature to change the law, not the courts.” That could be an obstacle. In both the 2000 and 2004 California legislative sessions, bills that would have thrown open the state’s juvenile courts failed despite the full backing of the Judicial Council of California, Juvenile Judges of California, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and several children’s groups, including the Children’s Advocacy Institute. A coalition of opposition groups — including the National Association of Social Workers and Legal Services for Children — helped defeat the bills. Whether the county will be successful by going through the courts remains to be seen. Judge Diaz has already shown that she’s open to the idea and even said in her ripping report that “nothing good comes of hiding things.” San Mateo County has its supporters — vocally, if not in court. The Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law thinks the petition is a good idea, as does Levy, Ram & Olson, a San Francisco law firm that represents media such as the San Francisco Chronicle and The Recorder. Associate Erica Craven said she saw only one problem in the proposal — the possibility that a deal could be struck to force media to keep some information confidential. She said that could be construed as an illegal prior restraint. “There are other ways to balance the children’s interests in confidentiality and the public’s interest in open access — for example, using only the child’s first name or the child’s initials during the open court proceedings,” Craven said. William Grimm, senior attorney for the National Center for Youth Law, disagreed, saying that keeping some information private “strikes a balance in the right direction.” “It’s not critical for the public to know the names and addresses of the individuals,” he said. Grimm said other counties should follow San Mateo’s lead, which he called “unusual, if not unprecedented.” Of course, “unusual and unprecedented” could be another way of saying that the San Mateo plan is a long shot. San Mateo’s Casey agrees. “We’re going to find out,” he said. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

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