A Year of Changes in Juvenile (2017)
The big news for the juvenile bench and its justice partners in 2017 is the move from the Wakefield Taylor Courthouse in Martinez to the Walnut Creek Courthouse. On August 14, 2017, the juvenile bench (other than Judge Fenstermacher) was officially relocated. Now, all child welfare cases brought under Welfare and Institutions Code (WIC), Section 300 (“dependency cases”) and various proceedings brought under WIC 602 (“delinquency cases”) are heard in the Walnut Creek Courthouse where Judge Haight, Judge Hinton and I preside. Judge Fenstermacher remains assigned to the courtroom at juvenile hall.
The decision to move the Juvenile Court to Walnut Creek was made for several reasons, primarily to better serve children and their families. The courthouse is located approximately three blocks from the BART station, making it much more accessible for those who utilize public transportation, especially those families who have to travel from the west county area. The Walnut Creek Courthouse has a large, free parking lot unlike the challenge for limited meter parking in Martinez. For minors who are in-custody and transported to court by Probation or the Sheriff’s Department, they no longer have to walk in public view while handcuffed or shackled. Also, families no longer have to share courthouse hallways with adult criminal defendants, the defendants’ families, or jurors as they did in Martinez. Almost all of the justice partners (Public Defender’s Office, District Attorney’s Office, Probation, Contra Costa Juvenile Advocates) have taken advantage of available office space in the county-owned building located adjacent to the courthouse, at 2020 Broadway. Although there are some minor issues we are working through, so far the reaction and feedback is overwhelmingly positive.
In preparation for the move, the Court’s Information Technology and Facilities staff worked under tremendous pressure and time constraint to make the physical relocation of an entire court function a success. New technology was added to each courtroom, updated equipment was provided and repairs were made to existing hardware in the Walnut Creek Courthouse. Facilities did a tremendous job not only reworking and repairing the courtrooms that were left idle for several years, but they handcrafted a new bench and remodeled the traffic courtroom (the sole courtroom located on the first floor of the building) after a vendor backed out of an agreement to perform the work at the last minute. In addition, due to the Court’s outdated and somewhat obsolete case management system, the courtroom clerks and juvenile clerks from the clerk’s office had to generate by hand individual notices of the Juvenile Court’s relocation for parties in juvenile cases, which was an extraordinary undertaking. In the end, the actual move was a success due to the efforts of staff.
The Juvenile Court underwent another significant change in terms of its justice partners. After contracting with a vendor for legal services in dependency proceedings for almost 10 years, and as the contract was due for extension, the Court opened the process and put out a Request for Information to provide legal representation for parties in dependency proceedings. Numerous vendors were interested and submitted proposals. The Court chose a new service provider, Contra Costa Juvenile Advocates (CCJA), and awarded a contract to provide legal representation services to represent all children, parents and other parties in juvenile dependency proceedings. The majority of CCJA attorneys had existing caseloads in Contra Costa County as contract attorneys and employees of the last contractor. The group formed their own non-profit entity and the attorneys are all subcontractors under the CCJA/Contra Costa Superior Court contract. They are all very experienced in the area of dependency and the Juvenile Court is very pleased with their legal representation and advocacy on behalf of their clients.
On a more somber note, the Juvenile Court suffered the unfortunate loss of one bench officer position at the beginning of 2017, reducing the number of juvenile judges from five to four. This reduction was based in large part on metrics designed by the Judicial Council for staffing allocation, coupled with the need for additional resources in family and a decline in the number of filings under Welfare and Institutions Code, Section 602. Consistent with a statewide trend, the number of minors brought before the Juvenile Court under a 602 petition has been steadily declining. However, the recorded numbers of matters handled by our juvenile bench are somewhat inaccurate. The Juvenile Court has committed significant resources to address chronic absenteeism by adding both a weekly parent and teen truancy calendar in two separate departments. These truancy cases are not measured in any way in terms of accounting for court resources yet these filings have steadily increased, commensurate with the increased participation by the various school districts in our county and continued dedication of resources by the District Attorney’s Office. Further, unlike the 602 proceedings, filings involving child welfare cases have remained consistent, with some increase over the last four years, and comprise the majority of cases in Juvenile Court.
In other juvenile-related initiatives, I handle the weekly parent truancy calendar in which parents are charged with infractions based on their failure to ensure their child’s daily school attendance. These cases typically involve children between the first and seventh grade. On a typical calendar, there are representatives from a county substance abuse treatment provider (REACH), C.O.P.E. Family Support Services, Lincoln Child Center, and Contra Costa Mental Health present who offer free or low-cost services to parents to assist in removing the barriers to getting children to school. These cases are usually stayed in order for parents to show improved engagement in school attendance. Teen truancy cases are heard by Judge Fenstermacher at Juvenile Hall. Similar services are offered to the teen minors and their families.
In addition to hearing teen truancy cases and 602 cases, Judge Fenstermacher is spearheading the effort to create a county protocol to handle competency issues in 602 proceedings including evaluation, treatment and education. She is working with the Public Defender’s Office and Probation. Sadly, Judge Fenstermacher will be reassigned to adult criminal proceedings in January 2018. We are pleased, however, to welcome Judge Landau who will fill the upcoming vacancy at Juvenile Hall where she will assume Judge Fenstermacher’s current responsibilities in 2018.