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Sunday, December 19, 2010

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William Patton

I was invited by the Assembly Judiciary Committee to testify regarding the open dependency court bill, AB 73. I have spent almost 15 years studying the dangers to abused children from publicity. I have written 5 law review articles, testified in different court legislatures, and testified in juvenile court as an expert witness. CalAware's article regarding open courts is simply misinformed and wrong.

If open courts are not dangerous for children, then why does the largest organization of attorneys who represent abused children, the National Association of Counsel for Children, oppose presumptively open courts like those envisioned by AB 73? Why does the largest organization of children's doctors in the United States, the American Academy of Pediatrics, oppose presumptively open dependency courts? It certainly is not because they have something to hide, but rather because they want to protect abused children from publicity that psychiatric studies has demonstrated causes them additional mental harm and often leads to bullying by peers.

CalAware suggests that newspapers are not biased on the open court issue. Then why have the major California newspapers only published proponents' op-ed articles supporting AB 73, and why have they, like the Los Angeles Times, several times refused to publish the opposition's arguments to AB 73? Since the L.A. Times would not permit me to publish a response, luckily a more ethical paper, the Los Angeles Daily Journal, permitted me to respond. But the media has generally only provided one side to the the issue--its side.

Why didn't CawAware inform its readers of the recently failed open dependency court system in Connecticut. They had a year-long Pilot Project and the Advisory Committee, after studying its system and the open court systems in other states, found that there was no evidence-based information that opening the courts brings system or professional accountability and it places abused children at risk of further trauma.

As a psychiatrist testified in the California legislature regarding open courts:

"The notion that publicizing this process [child dependency] will somehow benefit the child is hard to fathom. Publicity in the area of child maltreatment makes the child vulnerable to wide ranging humiliation, it leads to repetition of original trauma allowing the legal process...to become part of an extended pattern of psychological abuse."

The CalAware argument that there is "no logic" to having open criminal cases, but confidential child dependency cases is so misinformed that it is difficult to adequately respond. First, there is no policy choice whether or not to have open criminal proceedings --- they are guaranteed by the United States Constitution. There is not federal constitutional right to access to juvenile court, and therefore, that decision is a cost/benefit policy analysis. CalAware apparently did not think it important to check the statistics before it said that it was illogical to have some courts open and some closed. Let us look at the data. One study demonstrates that in an entire year there were only approximately 459 criminal child abuse trials, but there were over 70,000 hearings in the dependency courts. Is CalAware saying that because 459 of California's abused children may have to suffer from the publicity of a criminal trial that the other 50,000-70,000 children in the dependency courts should also suffer? That is a very compassionate position isn't it?

I am not apologist for the child dependency system. In fact, I have spent 30 years of my career as an attorney writing about its inadequacies, arguing in trial courts and in the California Supreme Court about is problems, and in working on legislation to bring the reality of the best interest of California's abused children closer to a reality than it currently is as a platitude.

We should not use our abused children as political pawns. Everyone, including the Assembly Judiciary Committee knows what is needed. In fact, the California Judicial Council and its Administrative Office of Courts have clearly told us the major problem: judges', attorneys', and social workers' caseloads are too high to be able to provide competent professional services. The solution is not disclosing abused children's often embarrassing secrets; the answer is properly funding the system so that all professionals can do their jobs well.

AB 73 is not a humane solution and should be defeated.

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