The first person to speak to me is a young Latino man. He asks if his name was just called over the crackling loudspeaker.
I am standing in front of J-4, one of two Riverside, Calif., courtrooms dedicated to child welfare matters. Thinking he is too young to be a father, I tell him maybe it was J-1 or J-2, where they hear juvenile delinquency cases.
There is a TV bolted to the wall above us. It is playing Disney’s “Oliver and Company,” a 1988 cartoon centered on the adventures of an orange kitten on New York City’s rough side.
The young man hurries off down a long hallway. Children and families litter the chairs along the way.
Visits by Video
Three Latino boys walk into the spotless and ordered J-4. The oldest, 17, is taller than the middle brother, who is taller than the youngest – like Russian nesting dolls.
Their mother? “Whereabouts unknown,” says an attorney.
Their father is a distant voice over a conference line from Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Washington’s eastern farmlands.
“I tried to call the social worker to get ahold of the kids, but he is never available,” the father says.
It’s not clear how long it has been since he has seen his sons. The court is moving toward a legal guardianship for the brothers with their foster parents. There may be visits, but these boys aren’t going to live with their father any time soon.
Judge Matthew Perantoni tells the father that he has been calling the wrong person. His social worker is a woman.
“I was wondering … [I was] talking to my counselor and he said I could also get video visits,” the father said.
“Apparently state prison in Washington is way more technologically advanced” than here in California, Judge Perantoni says.
“JPay Video Visits,” the father says. “I was wondering if I could get permission to do this.”
Judge Perantoni grants the father’s request as long as a Riverside child welfare worker can figure out the video on their end.
Coyote Ridge has “32 JPay Inmate Kiosks,” according to the company’s website. Video calls cost inmates $7.95 per half hour there. Last month a federal judge issued a preliminary ruling in a class-action lawsuit by inmates who claimed that JPay routinely cut calls short and still charged full price. Lawyers suggested that if everyone who was shortchanged by the company were paid back, the amount would exceed $5 million.
In his chambers, Judge Perantino says that scenes like this one were very common. If a parent’s prison term is too long, the system will have no choice but to place the kids in foster care, and eventually terminate their parental rights.
“I do think it is important to allow kids to visit parents in prison,” he says. More often than not, children are placed with relatives and will ultimately have a relationship with their parents after they are released, he says. The veteran judge laments how little there is in the way of services for parents while incarcerated.
Baby in a Bow Tie
The 1-year-old baby looks just like his father. Tightly wound springs of auburn hair, with a fade on the sides.
The baby looks forward at his father who sits on a bench behind his court-appointed attorney. The baby’s mother sits a few feet away behind her attorney. They are both incredibly young. The baby burps.
Judge Perantino calls the hearing to order.
“I commend [mother] on her progress,” the mother’s attorney says.
“I am very proud of my client,” the father’s attorney says smiling.
Judge Perantino looks down at the parents from the bench.
“I was also happy to read this report,” he says. “I have to tell you, you have done a very good job. Are you ready?”
Mother and father both say “yes” at the same time.
The judge makes his ruling. “The child is ordered placed in custody of mother and father under family maintenance.”
While the parents will remain under surveillance of the court, the baby in the bow tie is going home.
He’s a Father, Too
The young man I met in the hallway now walks into J-4 with his two boys, 3 and 4, and his wife who is pregnant with their third.
An older man with gray hair sits on the backbench – a recently made friend from the drug rehab program the young father has been attending in the month since he became involved with Riverside’s child protection system.
The young father and mother sit on the bench behind the same court appointed attorneys who had represented the parents of the baby with the bow tie. The young boys sit on the backbench next to their paternal grandmother.
“I understand how hard [it is] to quit, especially when it’s heroin,” Judge Perantoni says, looking at the young man. “I am rooting for you.”
The father says that he loves the 90-day program he is in. He’s stayed sober every day he’s been in it. The children can stay with mom while he tries to fight the addiction. If successful the family will be put back together.
Outside of the courthouse, under a noonday sun that had beat back thick fog, I run into the young father. He’s eating a burger with his older friend from the treatment center.
His family has already left. He and his new friend wait for the bus that will take them back to their temporary home.
This story is a part of a new Chronicle series called “Hearings,” where our reporters and guest contributors provide an inside look at how child welfare courts function.
In about half the states in the country, child welfare proceedings are closed to the public and media – despite the fact that they are places where children enter foster care; where families are ripped apart, sometimes put back together and otherwise – through adoption – made anew.
If you are a judge, parent, foster youth, attorney or an advocate for families … we want to hear from you. Share a story from a recent dependency court experience that you believe speaks to a problem or a success story.
Anonymity may be granted depending on the nature of your contribution. Our intent with this – and all Chronicle projects – is to ethically cover the child welfare system, which often means protecting the names and identities of children and families caught up in it.
A recent federal rule change could mean hundreds of millions of new funds for top-flight legal advocacy, and portends a new era of family justice in child welfare. Intense media coverage of this issue will drive increased funding for quality legal representation at the county, state and federal level.
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