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A Visit to Children's Court
in Los Angeles

Whilst visiting Los Angeles on May 3, 2006, Family Court Chronicles pursued its research into the practices of the courts in other jurisdictions. On this day, we visited the Edmund D. Edelman Children's Court, the central courthouse for nearly all juvenile dependency cases (child abuse/neglect) in Los Angeles County.

Of course, L.A. County has the Mother of All Court Systems, serving a multicultural population of about 10 million squabbling souls. Juvenile delinquency, for example, is adjudicated at 10 different locations around the county, and there are some two dozen county-run juvenile camps and detention facilities. However, there is only one principle location for Juvenile dependency hearings — that is, for cases where the government has taken legal responsibility for children, typically due to their parents' drug abuse. Here, children are victims, not perpetrators, and they are treated as such.

The Edelman Children's Court is a purpose-built facility on a wooded hillside about five miles east of downtown Los Angeles. It resembles not a courthouse but the campus of some high-tech company in the hills above Silicon Valley.

Coming from the provinces as we do, we were awed by the set-up: 19 courtrooms for juvenile dependency, compared with our three in Las Vegas. Child welfare in L.A. County may be a mess, but the courthouse itself is a dream. The architecture is warm and friendly, as are the people we encountered, and everything in the place seems thoughtfully designed for its purpose. Dare we say, the L.A. Children's Court is a virtual Disneyland for juvenile dependency, versus our rather pitiful Adventuredome.

From the court website
The building was opened in 1992 but still feels new. It has six floors plus a basement and an adjoining parking structure providing ample vehicular accommodations. Courtrooms occupy three of the floors. Outside the courtrooms on each floor is a spacious and comfortable waiting area—nicer than any airport lounge—with big windows overlooking the city. The Disney Channel plays on monitors overhead (a service graciously donated by the company). As part of a privately funded program, volunteers roam the waiting areas, plying children with crayons and other craft supplies and facilitating their artistic expression as they wait for their cases to be called.


An unused courtroom converted for use as an art workroom for waiting children. (Photographed with permission of occupants.)

Behind the scenes, we are told, the entertainment is even more elaborate. Every morning, a fleet of DCFS vans fans out across the county, collecting the children in foster care whose cases will be heard that day. Children have a right to participate in every hearing concerning them, and they are actively encouraged to do so. Once they are brought to the courthouse, they are wined, dined and entertained in a "shelter area" hidden from the public on the first floor. They may receive breakfast and lunch here while they wait for their cases, and they are diverted with an outdoor playground area, a basketball court and untold Disney-sponsored wonders indoors. When their case is called, they enter the courtroom through a back corridor.


Playground and basketball court behind the courthouse.

Every child who is the subject of dependency hearings in L.A. County gets his own attorney to represent his interests. (Governed by California law, WIC 317. Here is our annotated copy of the code.) Not only that, but he's explicitly entitled to a competent attorney, with standards established for training and evaluation.

Representation for children is provided by about 100 attorneys in three non-profit "law firms" which are all housed on the sixth floor. The firms are known as CLC 1, CLC 2 and CLC 3, where CLC = "Children's Law Center." (Personally, CLC 3 is #1 to us and can kick any other CLC's ass.) Each unit is firewalled off from the others: They have separate computer systems and separate management and are not supposed to communicate with each other regarding their cases. This eliminates the need for outside "conflict" attorneys when the interests of one child conflicts with those of another. When such a conflict arises, the conflicting clients are simply handled by different firms.

While every child gets an attorney, CASA volunteers are used only for certain exceptional cases. There are only about 300-350 active CASA volunteers in the county, most of whom handle only one child at a time. (It appears to us that CASA is more prominent in Las Vegas because our attorney system is so weak.)

Representation of indigent parents is handled by a panel of outside attorneys, but there are plans to convert this function to contracted "firms" similar to the CLC.

From the court website
We did not ask to enter the courtrooms during our short visit, as we were told that all hearings are closed. We did ask about the proceedings, however, as well as about the chain of command from the electorate to the court.

Both juvenile dependency and juvenile delinquency are presided over by a single elected superior court judge. He appoints the Judicial Officers who preside as judges over the 19 active courtrooms.

In each courtroom, there is a judge, bailiff, clerk, and court reporter. The state is represented by two DCFS social workers who are permanently assigned to each courtroom. (The District Attorney plays no role in these proceedings.) Parents and children may appear at each hearing, along with their respective attorneys.

DCFS caseworkers normally do not appear at court hearings unless there is some cause for them to be there. (With caseloads approaching 40 cases per worker, each of which requires a home visit once a month, the burden of also going to court would be too great.) Caseworker notes are conveyed electronically to the permanent DCFS representatives in each courtroom.

We spoke to the court administrator for some ballpark statistics about cases in the county....

All juvenile dependency cases in the county are handled in this building except for a relatively small number handled in a single courtroom in Lancaster (for cases in the remote Antelope Valley). Currently, there are close to 28,000 children in the county dependency system (unverified), which includes foster children, relative placements and cases under home supervision.

We asked the court administrator if Los Angeles, like Las Vegas, was experiencing an explosion of dependency cases due to the meth epidemic. His surprising answer was "No."

The administrator's personal sense was that one drug epidemic simply takes over from the previous one — heroin, crack, meth, etc. — and that meth was no worse than the others.

The number of dependency cases has remained stable in the past couple of years, and there has even been a dramatic drop in active cases over the past decade, perhaps due to better case management. It should also be noted that the population of L.A. County has also stabilized, with nearly all available land having been built out.

Local DCFS may be stretched beyond its limit, but the court itself is not bursting. The building has three unoccupied courtrooms that are now used for other purposes (like the art room above) with no threat of caseload growth in the foreseeable future.

With a smooth running facility and no crises at hand, this seems to be a good time to be a court administrator.

Looking to Big Brother in California can be useful to us in Nevada. California has "real" law, vs. our relatively primitive frontier law. With its long history and huge population, many more issues have been worked out in California law. If they do things in a certain way, maybe that's something we should think about. (Of course, they also have the concept of taxes to pay for all this, which Nevada is always resistant to.)

In the clerk's office, there are forms for everything, from requesting a CASA to announcing yourself as a "de facto parent" (a very interesting concept that gives you some limited rights, even if you aren't related to the child). Here is an example of one of the forms (pdf, 177k).

Clark County doesn't have many forms. Maybe that's what we need to fix everything: more forms!

The most important part of our visit? Good food, cheap. In the cafeteria downstairs, you can get a fresh-made omelette for $2.75. Add bacon for 60 cents and hash browns for 90 cents. Try to find those prices at a casino these days!

The L.A. Children's Court has everything we dream of. It's got a children's mental health unit on site. It has a mediation center. It has free teddy bears for every child who wants them. It has arts and crafts, sensitive architecture and cheap food.

For us, it isn't like visiting Disneyland so much as as peering over the fence at Disneyland and never being able to go in. You know Nevada could never pull this off. We can only dream.

Links

Court history and overview
Children's Law Center of Los Angeles
Summary of System Status by Presiding Judge, 2002 (pdf)
Pending lawsuit regarding child mental health


The entrance gardens.


The view from the 5th floor is totally L.A. (Scroll right.)



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