The recent failed attempt to pass a bill that would open California’s dependency courts to the public, highlights the complexity of simultaneously trying to protect the rights and privacy of children in the foster care system. As courts across the country are moving to allow the public to attend hearings concerning the lives of foster youth, it’s imperative that we consider the gains and losses of tipping the balance toward a maintenance of the status quo or toward revamping the current system.
Dependency court hearings are part of the process of determining the future of individual foster children. Those in favor of opening dependency courts argue that closed hearings allow courts to operate without accountability when making life-altering decisions for an extremely vulnerable group of children and adolescents.
However, these hearings may also include reviews of children’s histories, including details about the abuse or neglect that resulted in their being removed from their parents’ care. Those opposed to open hearings argue that the privacy of this vulnerable group will be compromised by allowing public scrutiny.
Protecting children in foster care is not easy. It is hard enough just to provide physical protection. Neglectful or abusive foster parents slip through the cracks of the vetting process. And, unfortunately, victimized children who have been placed in a foster family may victimize other children placed with the same family. When these instances of failure to protect come to light, we are understandably outraged, wondering how “the system” could have allowed such failures.
For better or for worse, there is no “system”–just a collection of people charged with caring for children who have no stable family to care for them. The legal and psychological issues facing those working to protect foster children are enormously complex and rarely offer simple “either/or” solutions. The lives of these children are difficult to comprehend. It is even more difficult to figure out how to address their many, often contradictory needs. The courts and the supporting characters—social workers, attorneys, advocates, foster parents, therapists, pediatricians—to name a few, often must craft delicately balanced solutions.
We need to protect children’s privacy AND we need to know that those charged with their care are working responsibly, ethically, and within the law to promote the best interests of children in foster care. This is not an easy task; it will most likely require a delicate balance between sometimes competing needs.
How would you begin to think about protecting BOTH rights AND privacy for foster children?
By Toni Heineman