Governor signs bill to improve rights for foster children in court
By Karen de Sá
Article Launched: 07/22/2008 01:38:29 AM PDT
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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gestures as he discusses the new California... ( Rich Pedroncelli)
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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger strengthened the rights of California's 80,000 children in foster care on Monday, signing a law that ensures greater opportunities for youths to be present in court hearings deciding the course of their lives - from where they will live to how often, if ever, they will see their families.
The measure was introduced by Assemblyman Dave Jones, a Democrat from Sacramento, to address a major flaw in California's juvenile dependency courts throughout the state: Hearings routinely occur without the children whose lives are at stake. Their absence was one key problem highlighted in the February series in the Mercury News, "Broken Families, Broken Courts," that revealed deep dysfunction in the state dependency system, the largest in the nation.
A commission appointed by Chief Justice Ronald George later reiterated the problem.
The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, calls for judicial officers to postpone hearings for children at least 10 years old if they have not been given notice and the chance to attend; while the law already called for children to be notified of hearings, it made no provision if the law was ignored.
In a letter released to members of the California State Assembly who had voted unanimously for the bill, the governor said he "wholeheartedly" supports the goal of providing foster children with greater access to hearings. "I am signing this bill because the foster children of this state deserve to have a role
in their futures," Schwarzenegger said.
But he also sent a rebuke to local decision makers - the judges, lawyers and social workers who oversee such weighty matters as whether children will ever see their parents again, following allegations of abuse or neglect. Outside of Los Angeles, where the participation of children is an ingrained part of the local court culture, foster youths are routinely absent from hearings in their cases, the Mercury News investigation determined.
Judges up and down the state revealed in interviews that they are unable to make the best decisions for children in foster care when they cannot see them, hear from them, and attach a name with a file, regardless of the age of the child.
Schwarzenegger questioned "why the courts have not made such access a greater priority when it is allowed under current law. More likely than not the reason is lack of resources and overburdened court schedules, which this bill fails to address."
He also cautioned that whatever costs the new law would incur, such as transportation expenses or social worker time, would have to be borne under existing budgets, in a time of fiscal crisis statewide.
A triumphant Jones, the Assembly judiciary chairman, greeted the news of his bill's passage Monday afternoon by thanking the governor for signing the bill despite estimates by his staff that the bill would cost up to $900,000 a year.
"These hearings are deciding the very futures of these children," said Jones. "It makes no sense whatsoever to deny them the opportunity to be there and participate. The costs of not doing so are enormous in terms of bad decisions about placements, further abuse and neglect, and broken lives."
Jones said he was moved to act after reading in the Mercury News the story of former foster youth-turned-student activist Zairon Frazier of Alameda County.
Frazier fought to attend all his court hearings but did so by his own sheer will and determination. Absent support, he traveled by bus and train to and from his court hearings, at times in the dark, alone and afraid. When he left the foster care system at age 18, his final "emancipation hearing" was held in his absence. No one bothered to change the date to avoid a scheduling conflict with his high school final exams.
Frazier - now 21 and busy scraping together the money to attend the University of Hawaii by working three jobs - said he is elated to hear the path will be easier for foster youths now coming through the system.
"I did not know the entire state senate would be voting on a story about what happened to me in foster care. I consider it an honor, it's very exciting," he said. "But I also consider it a duty. I'm a foster youth advocate, it's what I'm supposed to do. If something went wrong with you, change it so that it won't happen to anybody else."
Last week, Schwarzenegger signed two other bills to improve the foster care system. One bill requires county welfare departments to provide youths aging out of the system with documents needed to obtain medical benefits and other social services, as well as family photographs and information regarding Indian heritage. A second bill strengthens the legal rights of foster youth who have children of their own while in the system.
Contact Karen de Sá at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 920-5781
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