On Thursday July 3, the Oprah Winfrey Network will air an episode of its acclaimed docu-series “Our America with Lisa Ling,” which focuses on Los Angeles County’s foster care system. It is important to me, because as a co-producer I worked very hard to make sure that we were granted access to a world often cloaked in confidentiality.
In 2012, my organization, Fostering Media Connections, organized a town hall at U.C. Berkeley’s School of Law exploring the contentious debate over media access to otherwise-closed juvenile dependency hearings. These are the hearings where judges and court commissioners decide the fate of children who have been substantiated victims of abuse and neglect.
Guests ranging from former foster youth to the presiding judge of Los Angeles County’s Juvenile Court and the editorial page editor of The San Francisco Chronicle argued the merits and dangers of letting journalists into these proceedings. I had hopes that this discussion would be the start of a synthesis between the two sides of the argument, but I don’t know that we moved the dial substantially.
Since then, a California appeals court struck down a court order issued by Los Angeles County Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash, which had substantially eased media access to the largest juvenile dependency system in the nation. And despite spirited editorials by John Diaz of The San Francisco Chronicle calling for legislation that would, like Nash’s order, ease media access, no politician has stepped forward to take up the issue.
Of course, there is reason for caution. Children who have already been traumatized can be forever scarred by irresponsible media coverage. The potential costs to individual children supersedes the potential social good that exposing these systems to public scrutiny would bring, or so the argument goes.
And when journalists continue to chase the most salacious child welfare stories, it is understandable that attorneys and other child advocates are loathe to let the notebooks and cameras in. The media is hard to trust.
So into that absence of trust, I, alongside the incredible production team from Part 2 Pictures, which produces Our America, stepped lightly and came away with incredible access and an under-told story.
When you watch this episode on Thursday night, you will see what that access has won, and what we have chosen to do with it. You will see a simple, honest depiction of what the largest child welfare system in this country is up against; what every child welfare system in the country is up against. You will see, I hope, a picture not painted in black and white or even a scale of grays, but rather a story filled with color, vibrancy and the promise that the best in people can be forced to the surface by the hardest of moments.
It is for you to then decide whether or not we lived up to the responsibility that came with our access—whether we helped more than we hurt.