< The Downside of Opening Children's Courts in L.A.

Transcript

Friday, February 17, 2012

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Chantel Johnson is a policy and legislative coordinator at California Youth Connection. She's also a current foster parent and a former foster child. She says her organization believes Judge Nash's order is illegal but would accept it with three crucial alterations.

CHANTEL JOHNSON:

We asked for three things to happen in order to support it:  Allow the youth to make the decision whether the media should have access to their court proceedings. The other thing was that they would be able, at any point, to close that proceeding. And the third one was to study the impact.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

The impact of media in the courtroom.

CHANTEL JOHNSON:

Correct.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

The reason for opening the courts is to allow the media to shine a light on a broken system. Do you think the system is broken?

CHANTEL JOHNSON:

I do think the system is broken. And we have all types of recommendations that the state legislatures and the county representatives need to make. Opening the courts isn't going to change those recommendations. We already know what the problems are.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

But what about the argument that these stories from the courtroom could breathe life into long-known dry statistics and could actually motivate the public to take action?

CHANTEL JOHNSON:

We ask at what cost. People don't understand what really happens in a courtroom. We have rules on the Federal level about health privacy rights, education privacy rights. This is basically exempting children from that, because we're talking about grades they get in school, what their special education status is, what health concerns each one of them has, paternity tests. And some of these things are a deep concern when you're talking about your own privacy.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

I totally get that. On the other hand, as Garrett told us, the public often doesn't hear about these kids who are at risk until after they're dead, because there's so little transparency in the courtroom. Do you see that argument?

CHANTEL JOHNSON:

No. A lot of the child deaths that have happened in California actually have never been in the dependency court system. We're talking about Child Protective Services reports that actually never made it to the court level. So opening our court system isn't going to help oversee that.

The other thing is, is that we know that the system is overburdened. Just shining a light on it isn't going to make the legislators make any different choice.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

But isn't that the whole point of publicity, to keep pounding away at the issue until somebody takes some action?

CHANTEL JOHNSON:

Right. We need to look at the specific rules about what allows the media in, but doing this blanket order on an overall level is taking away the protections we've put in place for our children.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

This isn't a trivial matter for you. Can you recall for us what the experience in a courtroom might be like for a kid?

CHANTEL JOHNSON:

Within 72 hours of being removed from your parents, you're sent to court. So you've been taken away from your parents, you've been put into a new home, with people you don't know, which is also traumatic. And then you're brought back to court; the first time you've seen your parents in a few days is in a courtroom. You're asked to detail your abuse and neglect. You have social workers talking about you, attorneys arguing on both sides. And all of these things are extremely personal.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

When you were in court, did you ever wish that reporters were there?

CHANTEL JOHNSON:

No. If given the choice, I would not have allowed the media into my courtroom. I was in [CLEARS THROAT] the child welfare system multiple times. They were never good circumstances. What happens in a normal family when there's an issue, when there's a problem, you know, families do whatever they can to keep it internal to their family. And I think just because we're talking about foster children, they deserve the same right.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Chantel, thank you very much.

CHANTEL JOHNSON:

Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Chantel Johnson is a legislation and policy coordinator at California Youth Connection.