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San Mateo County Superior Court will not routinely open juvenile dependency matters to the public, a judge ruled Monday, turning down a request from county officials. Supervising Juvenile Court Judge Marta Diaz declined to grant the county’s request “because this court is powerless to do so,” her decision said. And after two days of testimony last week, she concluded that “we do not need to change it anyway.” She wasn’t persuaded by studies that the county presented to show that opening proceedings would not harm the children at the heart of the system. But the judge also sympathized with some of the county’s arguments, saying that press access had led to important reforms following a tragic death of a child in the system. The judge concluded by asking lawyers, therapists and reporters to help her find ways to give people more notice of the proceedings, and more access. “We do not need to spend time and energy in attempts to change perfectly adequate law,” Diaz wrote. “We need to work harder with the law to do what must be done.” State law presumes that dependency hearings are closed, but gives judges discretion to open them when someone has “a direct and legitimate interest in the particular case or the work of the court.” The state law on general dependency policy is so clear that it leaves no room for judicial interpretation, Diaz concluded. “The point is not what an individual judge might want or favor, but what judges must and must not do,” she wrote. The county argued that more access would help the public better understand the child services system, and hold everyone from judges to social workers more accountable. San Mateo County Counsel Thomas Casey III, who requested the change along with the county manager and its director of human services, has also said that he believes closed doors lead people to think someone is hiding something. At least 16 states already open such proceedings. But had Diaz granted the request, San Mateo would have become the only California county to routinely subject dependency cases to public scrutiny. The San Mateo County Bar Association’s private defender program opposed the county’s request, arguing that what it wanted would contravene state law, and would traumatize frightened and abused children. The county presented the judge with studies from other states to show children hadn’t been harmed by open hearings. Those assertions were “shaky,” Diaz wrote, because the data didn’t include responses from children, parents or the children’s therapists. But she also took some issue with the other side’s arguments about whether media access could harm children. The county’s opponents put on an expert who testified about two instances in which reporters in Pittsburgh, Penn., had included details such as names and addresses when reporting on dependency cases involving abuse. Diaz, who called the anecdotes emotionally charged, said they had some impact. “However, the respondent painted with a very heavy and wide brush. “This court’s experience with media and the dependency system could not be more polar from the Pittsburgh horror stories.” More than two years ago, after a baby boy in the dependency system was beaten to death, Diaz took the rare step of opening up subsequent dependency hearings for the boy’s older sister. In her decision Monday, Diaz credited accurate and responsible reporting for driving reforms after 8-month-old Angelo Marinda’s death. “The dependency court and dependency system cannot give our dependent children everything they deserve and require,” she wrote. “We need allies to help us.” County officials haven’t decided on their next step, Casey said. An appeal through the courts or an overture to the legislature are both possibilities. “We see this as a long-term activity,” he said. Gerry Hilliard, managing attorney of the private defender program’s juvenile division, said he’s already responded to the judge’s invitation to help her look for ways to improve notice of, and access to, the proceedings. “If a child is not going to be harmed, I’m not opposed to openness.”

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