Openness is the fix for troubled foster care system 

The most heart-wrenching issues I’ve written about have involved the state’s dependency court and foster-care system. Officials have the power to remove children from their homes and to place them in the care of strangers, yet the system that exercises these vast powers is veiled in secrecy and therefore off-limits to serious news coverage and oversight.

Fortunately, a new bill by Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, hopes to fix that system with a simple but time-tested approach: sunshine. His legislation would make hearings in dependency court presumptively open, meaning that the public and media could cover the goings-on unless a judge has a good reason to close the hearing.

Typically, I would hear from a distraught parent whose child had been taken into protective custody. Imagine the horror of such a situation. Often, the child would be taken by force as child protective services officials would show up with armed deputies. In the world of CPS, the parent has no rights and the child is taken away based mainly on the opinion of the social worker, who might start an investigation based on an anonymous tip. It’s a “guilty until proven innocent” system, based on the idea that if a child is in danger, that child must be removed from the home immediately.

Obviously, we all want children removed from abusive and dangerous situations, but government officials don’t always get it right. Many times, families are torn asunder based on unproven allegations and hearsay. The parents have no real standing in the court system and no real rights. The overburdened court system makes quick decisions that involve the fate of children and their families. Parents spend their life’s savings hiring attorneys and battling this impenetrable system.

On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve all read about children who are left in abusive homes and end up being brutally abused and even murdered. Many of the bigger CPS systems are bureaucratic nightmares. We’d like to think that the people who make these decisions operate with a Solomonic sense of justice, yet we know better given what we know about closed bureaucracies.

Year after year, we see attempts to increase funding or reform the system, yet nothing ever changes because reforms don’t do much. This is not a money issue but rather a problem rooted in the nature of the system. Feuer’s bill could actually help. There’s nothing like sunshine to expose injustice and create a push for reform.

Here is the bill summary: “This bill would express the intent of the Legislature to enact legislation to provide that juvenile court hearings in juvenile dependency cases shall be presumptively open to the public, unless the court finds that admitting the public would not be in a child’s best interest.”

Feuer is still crafting the final measure and he is considering a pilot program. But 17 other states have presumptively open dependency court hearings and the results are good.

While legislators waste their time introducing bills designed to play to their partisan base, here’s someone who is looking to fix an actual problem. Possible resistance might come from unions, which generally prefer that their workers do their job without much public input. We’ll see how it plays out, but let’s hope legislators from both sides of the aisle take the side of openness and reform.

Steven Greenhut is editor of; write to him at

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