< Journalists Allowed Into Los Angeles' Dependency Courts

Transcript

Friday, February 17, 2012

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

At the end of January, Michael Nash, a long-serving Los Angeles judge, issued an order reversing a near-prohibition on journalists reporting from inside the state's dependency courts. Dependency courts are where things like foster care and child abuse cases are heard. Before Nash's order, journalists had to prove they had a reason to be in the court, and they were rarely successful. Allowing reporters in will give them a chance to report on many children who are at risk in the child welfare system. Now they mostly get media attention when it's too late to do them any good.

FEMALE JOURNALIST:

A foster mother is under investigation in the murder of a two-year-old in her home.

FEMALE JOURNALIST:

…A tragic story about a six-year-old boy who tried to save himself from abuse

FEMALE JOURNALIST:

… in the investigation of two separate beating deaths of toddlers. County social workers were supposed to be on top of those cases.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Los Angeles Times reporter Garrett Therolf has reported on dependency courts for the last three years. He says the view from the courtroom will be much broader than what he had before.

GARRETT THEROLF:

There are 35,000 children under the oversight of Child Protective Services right now. We don't have a very good idea of what a cross- section of those cases is really like.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Does being inside the court mean that you can now report on anything that you want? Do you have any limitations?

GARRETT THEROLF:

There are still a lot of limitations. You know, when — when we go to a criminal court or a civil court, we're able to ask follow up questions of the attorneys, we're able to pull case records. In dependency court, I'm limited to only the oral remarks that are spoken in the courtroom. And some of the lawyers have actually gone to great lengths to try to obscure the facts. They've asked the judges not to read the allegations against the parents involved, and they've also jumped through linguistic hoops to obscure the facts of the case.

One of the children's attorneys last week started referring to her clients as "Minor #1, Minor #2, Minor #3, Minor #4." And that actually provoked a pretty stern response from the judicial officer involved. That particular courtroom had a referee, not a judge. And the referee said, we're supposed to be trying to make this more of a human process, and I really object to you assigning numbers to your clients.

I should point out, by the way, that The L.A. Times typically does not use identifying material for abused and neglected children anyway.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

You can't ask follow up questions, a lot of the documents are still sealed. A lot of times the lawyers will use verbal gymnastics to keep relevant information from you. So what's the point? What do you get out of this experience that you didn't get last month?

GARRETT THEROLF:

Over the past three or four years, there have been over 70 kids who have died. And we have definitely been able to see some of the systemic flaws in the system. We've seen that social workers don't have the information that they should. We've seen that they don't have even mobile devices to communicate with the home office and access information about the cases that they have right in front of them.

What we're not seeing are the bulk of the children who - who never die, who n - are never injured, but still have some pretty bad outcomes. Unfortunately, here in Los Angeles, half of the kids who come out of the foster care system are unemployed in the years immediately after they emancipate. Another third are homeless. Twenty percent are incarcerated. And I think we want to understand the reasons behind those really terrible statistics a lot better.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So let's take an individual case you've written about, that of Tori Sandoval? She was battered and starved and — eventually killed when she was sent back to her biological parents after living with a foster family. Do you think that a reporter in the courtroom might have improved Tori's situation?

GARRETT THEROLF:

I think it can. In the case of Tori Sandoval there were a lot of complaints about the conduct of the judicial officer who heard the case. There were allegations that that commissioner did not listen to all the evidence, cut people off before they could speak. There were also allegations that the proceeding was very brief. That's something that we know happens quite a bit in California.

There was a study a few years that found that, on average, hearings lasted only 10 to 15 minutes. And I think if a reporter was there we could better assess what's being missed, what isn't being considered. When a reporter's present, people are also likely to raise their game a little bit and try to do a better job.

My phone has been ringing off the hook with parents who want me to come their hearing, believe that something really inappropriate is happening in their child's case and feel that the press would be helpful to their children's best interests.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

There's a principled argument on both sides of this debate. You can see some down sides to having your colleagues present in the court, right?

GARRETT THEROLF:

Yeah. I think that one of things that is nagging everyone is the fact that under this blanket order allowing the press in, the child doesn't have final say about whether the reporter gets to remain in the courtroom. Even though we're not likely to write about the situation of children who don't want to be in the paper, I know that just me sitting there can cause distress for some kids in the system. And I definitely worry about that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

I guess the really sad thing is that if one child doesn't want the press in the court, it almost doesn't matter in the long run, because there are so many cases to choose from.

GARRETT THEROLF:

That's certainly true. The one very clear thing is that there is no shortage of tragedies going on in the system that are all newsworthy and require the public's attention.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Garrett, thank you very much. 

GARRETT THEROLF:

Good to be here.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Garrett Therolf is a reporter for The Los Angeles Times.