Juvenile Division 2020

The year 2020 has been marked by the unprecedented advent of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the shelter-in-place orders issued by Governor Gavin Newsom in March, each courthouse shut down countywide for over two months. Initially, there was a sole courtroom located in Martinez designated to handle very limited emergency matters. Effective March 30th, the Walnut Creek Courthouse opened a sole “emergency” courtroom to handle primarily juvenile dependency and juvenile justice detention hearings. Each juvenile judge rotated through the “emergency” courtroom to preside over time-sensitive urgent matters. During the court closure the clerk’s office remained closed to the public, and a drop box was utilized for emergency filings.

The shelter-in-place com-pelled courtwide shutdown and concomitant drastic reduction of the in-person operations of Children and Family Services and the Probation Department posed many challenges regarding maintaining and continuing essential court operations in juvenile matters. Many attorneys, social workers and probation officers were working remotely away from their respective offices.

Throughout mid-March to early May, all juvenile calendars came to a grinding halt, and a rising backlog of cases ensued. In the face of such uncertainty, logistical obstacles, and limited access to the courts, a great number of juvenile dependency and juvenile justice partners and stakeholders rose to the occasion and worked collaboratively with the juvenile judges to ensure the continuity of access to the court, and to improvise and adapt to the pandemic-related rapidly evolving challenges of comprehensive judicial oversight of cases involving youth and families. The court maintained an open line of communication between the justice partners and stakeholders via multiple conference calls, emails and ultimately via Zoom.

In the dependency realm, we were able to problem solve and reach numerous agreements related to the administration of detention hearings, the submissions of matters for stipulated orders and findings, and the ultimate migration to remote hearings via Zoom. When the Chief Justice issued the statewide emergency orders on April 6th, we were in many ways ahead of the curve related to the mandated prioritization of the matters requiring prompt judicial attention such as: detention hearings, psychotropic medication requests, emergency medical requests, Welfare and Institution Code (WIC) 388 motions to modify, warrant hearings and reentry requests for nonminor dependents. Local emergency orders were implemented to address the complicating factors that arose in relation to visitation, the initiation of virtual hearings, and establishing a protocol for the stipulation and order process to adjudicate reviews and non-contested matters. In regard to the juvenile justice matters, partners and stakeholders were able to identify and prioritize urgent cases necessitating prompt judicial attention and determination, devise a mechanism to stipulate to the supervised release from Juvenile Hall of low-level offenders who posed no community safety risks, and to cooperate with the transition to virtual hearings.

Upon the court’s reopening on May 26th, the juvenile judges have primarily been conducting their respective calendars via the Zoom platform, to ensure compliance with the public health safety guidelines mandating physical distancing of a minimum of six feet apart, the wearing of masks, and the strict limitations related to small gatherings of individuals. The pivot to primarily remote hearings has been hugely successful due to the level of flexibility, cooperation and creativity on the part of the juvenile attorneys, Children and Family Services, Probation and other stakeholders. The resumption of the daily calendars has lessened the burden of the backlogs, and most importantly enabled each juvenile department to conduct all types of hearings, instead of just “emergency” hearings—thereby permitting full access to the courts once again. Each department handles live hearings as well, but on a much more limited basis. Each juvenile department divides the daily calendars in the following manner: the mornings are designated for remote Zoom hearings, and the afternoons are reserved for live in-person hearings. Some departments hold readiness conferences one court day before the scheduled calendar to assess which cases are able to be called on Zoom.

It is unclear how long the courts will need to utilize virtual formats and platforms. Remote hearings are a suitable alternative for live hearings, but can’t entirely capture the fundamental formality and nuances of in-person hearings. There are inherent inescapable challenges accompanied with remote hearings in juvenile matters, such as issues of “connectivity” (poor or unstable coverage), impediments in providing paperwork, and replicating the courtroom environment, etc. All of the partners and stakeholders, court clerks, court reporters, parties and countless others have exercised great patience and cooperation in adapting to the “new normal.”

In closing, it is important to note that while this has been a remarkably challenging year, I have been extremely impressed with the ingenuity, comradery, creativity, resiliency and decency of the juvenile community of dependency and justice partners and stakeholders. During chaotic, uncertain times, the stakeholders and partners collaborated together for the good of the youth, parents and families. Many thanks to my fellow colleagues for their contributions during the court shutdown, without which we would not have emerged from two and a half months, ready to handle “business as usual.” Judge Landau created the stipulated request and order form for the submission on reports without a hearing (J-001), paving the way for the adjudication of reviews and non-contested matters without a court hearing, and greatly limiting avalanche-like backlogs. Judge Kennedy facilitated the implementation of Zoom both in the criminal and juvenile divisions, enabling the seamless transition to remote hearings. Judge Mockler reviewed a staggering amount of WIC section 827 requests, as well as presided over the majority of the WIC 602 matters in May and June. I would like to recognize Karen Cardinale, the court manager, for her unwavering assistance during the court closure and reopening, as well the incredible crew of bailiffs, volunteer courtroom clerks and court reporters that staffed the “emergency” courtroom. Lastly, I wanted to thank Judge Landau for her excellent work during her three-year tenure in the juvenile assignment, and to welcome Judge Santos who will be replacing Judge Landau in January of 2021.