In a typical morning in the court system designed to protect California’s children from abuse and neglect, “justice is being strangled by the clock,” reports the San Jose Mercury News. In as Sacramento court, attorneys spend two minutes on the case of a 3-year-old sent to the children’s shelter after being found in a filthy home. The case of a teenager anxious to reconnect with lost siblings gets three minutes. Should a mother’s right to her child be terminated? The court date opens and closes in 60 seconds. Parent and child are legally severed for life. Scenes like this repeat daily in the state’s juvenile dependency courts, a little-known arm of the justice system deciding the fate of families whose children have been removed by social workers.
With too little time to weigh the facts and consider best options, there’s a risk children will be wrongfully removed from their parents, or sent home into harm’s way. A yearlong Mercury News examination found widespread evidence of a system riddled with problems. Judges and lawyers representing children and parents juggle caseloads in some counties that are far higher than the maximum recommended standards. High caseloads mean judges regularly rule without time to probe basic information. Even at critical stages such as when children are first brought into foster care by social workers, hearings are often superficial. Only one-third of the judicial officers hearing dependency cases are judges; commissioners or referees preside over most hearings. Substandard representation is common for many parents whose income makes them eligible for court-appointed lawyers. The dysfunctional courts are unknown to most people. Cloaked in confidentiality to protect children’s privacy, the system allows few outsiders in, holding hearings so secretive that there could be criminal charges if clients or lawyers discuss them.