Presiding Judge Michael Nash in L.A. County Dependency Court has seen horrific child sexual predators who rape their toddlers and sickos who starve their foster children -- and social workers and judges who fail to act. But these fallible, troubled juvenile courts are held in secret. Now Nash plans to open the doors and let sunshine in.
Since the 1995 beating death of toddler Lance Helms -- who the Dependency Court returned to his murderous addict father David Helms -- big unions in L.A. County government have fought to keep the juvenile courts secret. Not to protect child victims, but to protect adults who fail to remove children from evil, the pattern that let child predator Jerry Sandusky ruin children's lives at Penn State.
I saw the aftermath of the adult incompetence -- and the culture of cover-up -- that let Lance Helms and other children be killed. His battered body arrived at the morgue, and I saw his name on his toe tag as his body was rolled into an autopsy room.
Deputy Coroner Eva Hauser was assigned to find out what had happened to the precocious 2 and 1/2-year-old, and she did.
Lance Helms' aunt, Ann Helms, and grandmother, Gail Helms, fought hard to see that David Helms (their brother and son respectively), went to prison for the murder. He did.
The Helms women made headlines in the LA Weekly, San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times, attacking the Dependency Court for ignoring their evidence that Lance was in mortal danger.
Their passion led State Sen. Richard Polanco to push through the Lance Helms Sunshine Act that forced at least some of what was going on into the open. But not enough.
Now, Judge Michael Nash is acting unilaterally.
He is no longer waiting for the gutless California state legislature to order these secret juvenile courts open to the public. (The main opponent of ending the secret courts: The Service Employees International Union, SEIU, representing the county government workers who screw up cases and ignore children in danger.)
Nash is sticking his neck out. According to the Los Angeles Times, Walsh is:
... preparing to open proceedings for dependency court in an effort to improve accountability and transparency for a branch of the legal system that handles child abuse, child neglect and foster care placements.
Members of the media and the public are barred from entering dependency courtrooms without court permission, but Judge Michael Nash is proposing a blanket order that would make the hearings presumptively open unless someone objects and a judge chooses to close the hearing.
Walsh should institute this rule in memory of the following long-forgotten children, forced to live in harrowing, dangerous homes, by careless adults at Dependency Court:
-Lance Helms, murdered by his dad in 1995
-Bernadette Swett, a toddler, strangled by her mom's boyfriend, Dillon Feldman, in 1992
-Two mentally impaired girls whose pedophile father spent year raping them
-Samantha Hochman, 3, whose mom battered her to death after forcing rubbing alcohol down her throat
Gail Helms told the Weekly in 1995 that Dependency Court Referee Richard D. Hughes ignored her warnings, inside the secretive courtroom, that her son David was a violent heroin addict and should not be granted unmonitored visits with the toddler.
Another judge, Commissioner Bradley A. Stoutt, returned three children to known dangerous homes, and all were killed. That was in the 1990s. Things have been slow to change -- thanks in large part to the secret courts.
"Who are these people who experimented with my grandson?" Gail Helms asked.
She wasn't talking about her son, who went to prison for killing Lance. She was talking about the lawyers, judges, Department of Children's Services social workers and others who insist on keeping Dependency Court secret -- and thus utterly unaccountable.
The Sacramento Bee has its own list of dead little girls forced into horrific danger by judges and caseworkers with far too many cases and only minutes to make a judgment -- all of it in done in secret.
As the Bee editorial page explained in September:
Remember Amariana Crenshaw, Valeeya Brazile, Tamaiyha Moore? They are three Sacramento County children who died in recent years. Before their deaths, all three had been victims of alleged abuse or neglect.
Their cases were heard in closed juvenile dependency courts where, after listening to attorneys for the children and social workers and parents, judges delivered them into the arms of caregivers who became suspects in their deaths.
Each year, dependency courts make life-altering decision for tens of thousands of vulnerable children. Judges decide whether or not to remove children from parents who've been accused of abuse. They decide where to place children after they are removed, what services they will receive and what, if any, contact they will have with their parents or siblings. This awesome power is exercised in secret, behind closed courtroom doors. Unless someone can make a compelling case to open them, most dependency court proceedings are closed.
A bill, AB 73 by Assemblyman Mike Feuer, a Los Angeles Democrat, would open dependency courts in a handful of counties. It faces its first hearing on Tuesday in the Assembly Judiciary Committee. Los Angeles and Ventura counties have asked to be part of the pilot. Sacramento should ask to participate as well.
But Assembly Bill 73 is sitting, all but dead, in the state Assembly's Human Services Committee -- thanks to big objections by unions out to protect the adults, the SEIU and the California Welfare Directors Association, as well as California Youth Connection (CYC).
Who did the big unions push to the forefront to publicly plea, in front of the Assembly Human Services Committee, to keep the courts secret? Abused and neglected foster kids from the CYC.
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Sacramento is a sick place. Of course these children don't want their stories made public. That was never a risk under Mike Feuer's very carefully written bill.
Under Feuer's AB 73, if any children were against having an open court, the court case would not have been opened.
Judge Michael Nash has had enough. Sacramento won't fix it. He's going to try.
To read a list of children murdered by their own caretakers, and the betrayals by the system that allowed it, go to God Bless Our Lost Angels.