What Happens When Courthouses That Hear Abuse Cases Shut Down?

The Edmund D. Edelman Children's Courthouse in Los Angeles. (Dennis Smeal/KQED)

It was a scene of confusion and despair early Tuesday morning in front of one of the nation’s largest children’s courthouses in Los Angeles as parents, some with children and babies in tow, stood helplessly outside the closed building.

“The notice on the courthouse door says that the court is closed for three days and doesn't really provide a lot of information about what to do,” said Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children's Law Center of California, who was informed of the temporary closure the night before.

Heimov and her staff attorneys provide legal representation to children in the child welfare system in Los Angeles and Sacramento. On Tuesday, Heimov found herself explaining the closure to a confused parent.

“They were all told to come to court, so they're showing up, some of them taking public transportation, some with their babies with them,” she said. “Not surprisingly [it’s] a lot of very distressed folks.”

The Edmund D. Edelman Children's Courthouse in Los Angeles County's Monterey Park hears cases that relate to allegations of abuse or neglect of a child. Parents with a scheduled hearing check in at 8:30 a.m. Many show up early to wait throughout the day for their cases to be called. Some are there to regain custody of their children, and others are there to show their progress on a court-mandated plan before reunification can occur. Some parents might also learn at that courthouse that their parental rights have been terminated.

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Now the courthouse is closed due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, along with others across California, including in Sacramento, San Mateo and other Bay Area counties.

Children get their own attorney in all dependency court proceedings primarily to ensure that the child’s welfare is paramount. Heimov worried that the precautionary court closures might have other harmful impacts to the children that she and her staff attorneys represent.

“What we worry about is the child's emotional well-being,” Heimov said. “Are they scared? Is there something they need? Do they maybe have a medical condition that we don't know about and we need to make sure they get the proper medications? Have they been separated from their siblings?”

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Heimov said she understands the seriousness of the current public health crisis.

“While we take our civic duty to flatten the curve extremely seriously, we also recognize that there are some situations where there are equally as important concerns for the welfare of a child or of the family that need to be addressed timely and can't be put on hold indefinitely,” Heimov said.

On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Superior Court confirmed through an administrative order that the courts will remain closed until April 16 except for time-sensitive and essential functions. For child abuse or neglect cases, this means that only the most urgent will get a hearing, especially if it involves the imminent safety of a child. All other routine court functions will be delayed for 30 days.

This worries Janine Townsend, a grandmother from Perris, California, who relies on a court order for guaranteed visitation with her grandson.

“I'm hoping we get a visit on Friday,” Townsend said.

Her grandson was removed from his parents and placed with a foster family. The foster mother hasn’t been compliant with her visits, Townsend said. She is worried that it may be a long time before she can see him again.

“They’re saying this can go on for months,” Townsend said.

Bobby Cagle, who heads the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, the nation’s largest child welfare agency, said visits with family members will continue.

In the case that a physical visit cannot occur, department social workers are encouraging families to do virtual visits.

“We're doing things like telephone calls, FaceTime, Skype,” he said.

Cagle advised family members to call their social worker if they are told by a foster parent that a visit cannot happen.

“If they feel like they're not getting what they need from the caseworker, they can always call a supervisor,” Cagle said.

Cagle acknowledged the extra anxiety of the current shelter-in-place orders might have for families.

“We know that families are worried about their children,” Cagle said. “The children [also] need to hear from their families so that they can be calmed in the situation as well.”

Monthly home visits by a social worker to all children in foster care will also continue, Cagle said, and where possible, video conferencing will be used.

Cagle said he's also worried about a dramatic drop in the number of calls received by the department hotline number, which gets between 500 to 1,000 calls per day reporting alleged child abuse or neglect. The decrease occurred since public schools closed on Monday.

“Schools are one of the three primary drivers of the volume of calls that come into our hotline,” Cagle said. “What we have seen is a 30% to 50% decrease in the amount of calls ... over the last couple of days.”

Teachers are often the ones that notice when a child might be the victim of abuse, and they call the hotline. Now, children are confined at home, which also worries domestic violence advocates.

“Often staying home is not the safest plan because the abuser, the person hurting them, knows where they live or they live together,” said Carmen MacDonald, director of legal services at the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice.

“If the home is the place that you're experiencing domestic violence and now you've been told to stay at home, I'm very concerned that survivors are going to be less safe and the children are impacted who are witnessing domestic violence, and now children are home full time,” McDonald said.

When it comes to domestic violence, schools also play a critical role in helping women get out of dangerous situations, she said. But with the closures, “the child's not going to school to tell their teacher what's happening at home.”

The Los Angeles Superior Court announced that all restraining orders due to expire would automatically be extended 21 days, which McDonald applauded. Yet she said she's worried about women who need a hearing and won’t get one. Police stations can issue an order that tells the accused abuser to “stay away” for up to seven days, but this is not the same level of protection a victim can get through the courts, which has other remedies available to help the victim stay safe and protect her children.

“We already have a population that is isolated that's now being forced into further isolation,” McDonald said. “And often the batterer is the one telling them no one's going to help you and now that’s really true.”

If you suspect a child is the victim of abuse or neglect, call DCFS child protection hotline in L.A. County at 1-800-540-4000.

Deepa Fernandes is a reporting fellow at Pacific Oaks College, which is funded in part by First 5 LA.