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Juvenile Dependency Court Making a difference in the lives of children and all of the other parties involved By Suzanne Schmidt


here aren’t many courtrooms filled with stuffed animals and toys,” pointed out Tracy De Soto, a lawyer who represents minors. Given special security access to the closed courtroom, I spot a monkey, a fire truck, an elephant on the shelves. The hearing over, the judge invites a young child to pick out a toy — to keep. Juvenile dependency court — at first blush a seeming misnomer — is part of the superior court system. Although that toy might bring some sunlight into the child’s day, the dependency courtroom is rarely a happy place. The tragedies that bring families through its doors every day overshadow any fleeting, bright moments. Each family has, for some reason, stopped functioning at the most basic level. At one extreme, a newborn with shattered bones; a three year-old girl, the victim of sexual molestation — victim of

a close family member; a six year-old boy, starving because of his mother’s substance abuse — she refuses to feed him. How do families end up here? Some cases start with a call to the child abuse hotline, then a social worker home visit. If the child is in immediate danger, the social worker removes the child to an emergency shelter and, within two days, petitions the court. That triggers an immediate hearing. The court appoints attorneys for each parent and the child, and then decides whether the child can temporarily remain at home; the court also focuses on whether the social worker made reasonable efforts to keep the child with the family. Tilisha Martin, who has worked as a minor’s lawyer for ten years, explains: "Most of the time, the same attorneys and judge are assigned to the family throughout the dependency case. This gives everyone working with the family

an opportunity to know the children and the parents — to learn the way the family functions, and learn about their strengths and challenges. This information is important to support the success of the family." As a case moves through the court process, the judge must determine whether the child has suffered abuse or neglect. If so, the child becomes a juvenile court “dependent” and the parent or parents lose custody until they complete a social worker-created plan; the goal is reunification with their child — minimally within six months; two years at the outside. The focus is the best interest of the child. Historically, the child’s view has been ignored; but no longer. Today, the court wants to hear the child’s voice. Martin highlights the value of trust to empower a child:

July/August 2015 SAN DIEGO LAWYER 29

San Diego Lawyer July/August 2015  

Inside this Issue: Our Annual State of the Courts Update; Juvenile Dependency Court: Working Towards Healing; Court Funding Cuts by the Numb...