Playing Dependency Court Expose

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February 2008
Karen de Sa (Mercury News) investigates California's Dependency Courts and how parent's rights can be quickly terminated.

Dependency courts step-in when social workers suspect parental neglect or child abuse, and these custody decisions are made in confidential courts, as opposed to criminal courts.

The complete investigation, called "Broken Families, Broken Courts", can be found here: (

Part I "How rushed justice fails our kids" -
Part II "A timed advocate for parents' rights" -
Part III "Big stakes, but little voice for kids" -


State panel calls for change to fix dependency court system

By Karen de Sá
Mercury News

A state commission concluded its two-year study of California's juvenile dependency courts Friday by calling for sweeping reforms to make sure children and parents caught in the system are better informed and better served.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care recommended critical changes to ensure that lawyers meet with their clients well in advance of their hearings, that judges preside over all court cases and that children are present and active when their life in foster care is being decided.

The recommendations address several of the critical problems highlighted by the series "Broken Families, Broken Courts," a Mercury News investigation published last month that exposed widespread problems in the courts that oversee 75,000 California children in foster care.

The report of the commission, appointed by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George, echoed the newspaper series with this dire warning: "California's dependency courts are over-stressed and under-resourced, burdened by crowded dockets and inadequate information."

California's dependency courts decide which children should be returned to their families and which are removed permanently following allegations of child abuse and neglect.

The report was posted online Friday, launching a 60-day public comment period. In August, the state's Judicial Council - the policy-making body of the California courts - is expected to consider adopting reforms.

Confirming the Mercury News findings, the commission reported that children and parents afforded court-appointed lawyers "do not meet their attorneys until moments before their hearings." The typical time for hearings is as short as 10 minutes, a far cry from the 30- to 60-minute hearings recommended.

"If we truly are intent on doing better by children and families, we can't ignore the courts and the legal process," said Myriam Krinsky, a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission and a state courts consultant. "The commission's recommendations acknowledge that we have to do business differently, and that children and families will continue to pay the price if we don't start to turn the corner."


The commission is the first of its kind in California, focusing on the court's role in the child welfare system. Commissioners included judges, attorneys, legislators, child welfare directors, foster youth, child advocates, tribal leaders, academics and philanthropists.

The recommendations in the commission's 20-page report aim at reducing the number of children in foster care, a system believed to poorly serve the children it is designed to protect. Key recommendations include:

• Removing children from their homes should be a last resort, and children temporarily separated from parents should be returned home by the courts as quickly as possible. If the state does take custody, children in long-term foster care should receive financial and other support through age 21, rather than ending foster care at age 18 as is the current practice.

• Local trial courts should prioritize the often-shunned dependency courts. All dependency cases should be heard by judges, not the court-appointed referees and commissioners who now hear most cases.

• All court clients - including children - should have an opportunity to participate in their hearings; with the exception of cases in Los Angeles County, children are routinely absent. Clients should get help with rides to court, and hearings should be set at specific times, so that school and work conflicts for parents can be accommodated.

Attorneys' role

To improve the quality of representation in dependency court, the commission calls for attorneys to meet with clients "before the initial hearing and in advance of all subsequent hearings," a basic communication now lacking in most courtrooms.

The commission also wants higher pay and lowered caseloads for lawyers who now carry as many as 600 cases in some regions. This is hundreds more cases than competent attorneys can reasonably manage, experts say.

What's more, new attorneys should be encouraged to enter a field too often shunned, the report stated: Juvenile dependency law should be a mandatory area of study for the California bar exam and student loans should be forgiven for those entering the field.

Some dependency court insiders viewed the long-awaited report with some disappointment, fearing that the language is too vague to have an impact. Others fear the state's dire fiscal crisis will be an obstacle to the legislation and resources needed to make lasting change.

Jonathan Pearson a 25-year-old former foster youth who serves on the commission, said he hopes the recommendations will be strengthened and improved following public comment.

Pearson, removed from his drug-addicted mother at age 3, lived in nine different court-ordered placements. Going to court often meant a four-hour wait, before a minutes-long hearing with a lawyer he had just met.

For the commission to have the impact Pearson and others desire, "I think that we have more work to do," he said. "We need to make sure that not only is the report politically viable, but there's a clear way to implement every recommendation."

Commissioner Darrell Steinberg - who is incoming president pro tem of the state Senate - said the state's fiscal crisis makes it impossible to implement reforms that cost money. But the Sacramento Democrat is hopeful there will be future opportunities to spend money on desperately needed change.

"If we don't help children and families during these most difficult times," Steinberg said, "they will bear the consequences and so will we."  


The commission report may be seen at: 

Contact Karen de Sá at or (408) 920-5781

Questions continue about public-paid lawyers in dependency court


It wasn't the string of court-appointed lawyers who won Kathie Elliott's children back from a foster home. It was the motion that Elliott was left to prepare and file on her own.

When her lawyers wouldn't pursue the legal petition that Elliott said a sympathetic social worker had suggested, the 36-year-old self-employed mom — feeling increasingly desperate — hand-wrote the document and took it to the courthouse clerk's office.

That filing prompted a Santa Clara County Juvenile Dependency Court judge in April to order Elliott's infant and toddler returned home — almost a year after they were removed following a domestic dispute.

Elliott's case raises anew questions about the dependency court representation provided by Santa Clara Juvenile Defenders, the firm publicly funded to represent indigent local parents accused of child abuse or neglect. In Elliott's case, the conduct of the firm's lawyers is aggravated by what happened after her children were returned to her: One of the lawyers paid an unannounced evening visit to her home for no apparent business reason.

The Mercury News series "Broken Families, Broken Courts," in February documented widespread problems in the representation provided by local, court-appointed attorneys in dependency proceedings. Longtime managers of the firm are regrouping as a non-profit agency, and court officials are in the process of negotiating a two-year contract with the new organization.


But Vicki Firstman, an attorney who has supervised the appeals of dependency court cases since 1996, sees the Elliott case as evidence that many of the firm's long-standing problems remain: "A number of the attorneys in this office have not had the proper training, they've not had the proper mentoring, they don't understand their obligation as advocates, and in some cases, like this one, the parents succeed not because of the lawyers, but in spite of them."

Firstman, of the Sixth District Appellate Program, called the case "an outrageous circumstance where the client plainly had a winning issue and her lawyer abandoned her."

On the eve of publication of the Mercury News series in February, managers with Juvenile Defenders had pledged to fight harder for parents in dependency court. And one of Elliott's attorneys insisted the firm had aggressively represented her, even if the lawyers never filed the form that triggered the return of her children.

The attorney said she had worked out an informal agreement with the opposing lawyers in the dependency court case that would lead to the family being reunited, but the plan was upended when new lawyers took on the representation of the county social worker and the children.

Supervisors at Juvenile Defenders were unavailable to answer questions about the house visit paid to Elliott by attorney Brian Bloom, who is no longer with the firm. Bloom said he could not discuss the case.

The case in question began last year after a bitter fight between Elliott and her husband, Scott, 37. The facts are not in dispute: Elliott was incensed that her husband had begun using drugs. During a violent argument, she bit him. Scott then rounded up the children and went to the Campbell police station.

Child Protective Services arranged for the children to be brought to a shelter, noting drug and alcohol use and previous domestic strife.

In a series of interviews, Elliott said she responded by doing everything asked of her, in order to reunite with her kids. She regularly attended psychotherapy and classes in parenting and domestic violence prevention. Her husband got sober, then moved out.

Still, Elliott — who runs a home business repossessing cars — said her court-appointed lawyers routinely cautioned against demanding a trial or taking aggressive measures that might antagonize the judge.

But Elliott was distraught over the loss of her children, and a new social worker, impressed by her efforts, recommended she petition the court to get them back, Elliott said. She recalls vividly the moment when a Superior Court judge responded to her action, announcing that her children could return home.

"I was going to hold my babies again," she recalled. "I waited nine months for those words to come out of someone's mouth. My nightmare had ended. I was going to get my kids back."

The attorney involved in the case — who asked that her name not be included, citing the court's rules on confidentiality — said it "is not completely fair" to say the firm failed to properly represent Elliott. She said the firm's attorneys would have filed the petition after it turned out informal efforts were unsuccessful.

But Elliott said their performance was not acceptable: "Every second of every day that I didn't have my children mattered to me," she said. "I wanted my kids back yesterday."

She remains angry that she had to do her lawyer's job. The visit by Bloom only furthers her outrage.

Bloom, who joined Juvenile Defenders in 2007 after working as a dependency court lawyer in Sacramento, had announced his resignation before knocking on Elliott's door in April. Elliott's children had only been home for a matter of hours, and she was struggling to feed them and control their tantrums.

"It made me really uncomfortable," Elliott said. She had agreed to unannounced social worker visits as a condition of her children's return and did not want to make a single wrong move.

"They can't find time to call us back when our kids are taken, but the kids are home now and he's going to find two hours to come sit on my couch?" Elliott said. "I had just gotten my kids home, and I was terrified."


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