An inside look at California's Dependency Court

Marquita Jackson and her boyfriend Mario have lost all parental rights to their three year old son.

"We were accused of abusing our child," said Marquita Jackson.

A few weeks after their son was born, he had a brain hemorrhage. A doctor suspected Mario of shaking the baby, but Mario denied it and no criminal charges were filed. Their baby was placed with a foster parent and eventually recovered. Marquita and Mario were only allowed to see him twice a week, with supervision. They fought to get him back.

"I lost a job due to so many court dates," said Mario.

The two went to individual counseling, couples counseling, a year-long parenting without violence class, everything their social worker required. But in the end, they lost their son, primarily because Mario would never admit to hurting him.

"I love my son with all my heart," said Mario.

The custody decision was made here, in the little known world of Dependency Court. Dependency Courts step in, when social workers suspect parents of child abuse or neglect. The rules are very different from criminal court. Everything is confidential and the stakes couldn't be higher.

"Parents' rights can permanently be terminated and they can no longer legally have access to parent their children. And for children in foster care, absolutely every decision that gets made for them, is made by these courts," said Karen de Sa.

Karen de Sa is a reporter with the San Jose Mercury News. She spent the last year getting to know Dependency Courts all over California.

She got rare access to this confidential world and found an overcrowded system where critical, life-changing decisions are often made in a matter of minutes.

"These lawyers are so overwhelmed with cases and these judges are so overwhelmed with families, that you get a far, a very low level of attention. There's not enough time to meet with clients. There's not enough time to interview them and prepare for their hearings," said de Sa.

Almost no one in Dependency Court, including Marquita and Mario, can afford lawyers, so they are provided by the court. The couple says they rarely saw their lawyer until just a few minutes before each court hearing.

"It all seemed like it was going too fast and everything was going past us and the everything was changing, and different lawyers and it was just chaotic. And we were just like, at the end, 'Okay, by the way, you don't have your child anymore,'" said Marquita Jackson.

The law firm that represented Marquita and Mario would not speak to ABC7 News on camera or talk about the case, except to say they gave the couple effective representation. Katherine Lucero is the supervising judge in Santa Clara County's Dependency Court.

"It's a very overwhelmed, under-resourced situation," said Lucero.

Judge Lucero did not hear Marquita and Mario's case, but she believes the court-appointed attorneys are doing the best they can, in a system where both lawyers and judges are stretched thin.

"Sometimes we have up to 30 cases in a morning, per courtroom," said Lucero.

Judge Lucero and two other judicial officers each handle eight to nine hundred cases at a time, but she believes they still make good decisions.

"If I don't think all the pieces of the puzzle are there for me, I'm not going to make a half witted decision about the life of a child and a family," said Lucero.

The judge says the law is very clear, children should be returned to their families whenever possible, but statewide only about 36 percent of children in foster care go home within the first year. The numbers are even lower for African-American and Latino children, who are much more likely to stay in foster care than white kids.

Andre Chapman is a juvenile justice advocate who runs programs for at risk youth. He believes the system is biased against low income families and people of color. Chapman has followed Mario and Marquita's case and believes Dependency Court let them down.

"The big issue at the end of the day is, you have to say, 'Do we feel as a society, that people that are considered low income, should not have the same level of representation as we consider people that have the resources?'" said Andre Chapman, Juvenile Justice Advocate.

Marquita and Mario are still hoping somehow they'll get their baby back, but for now, all they have is pictures.

"It's's not right," said Marquita.

A blue ribbon commission on California foster care is wrapping up a two year investigation and is expected to release its recommendations for reforms in the next few weeks. On Sunday, February 10, 2008, the San Jose Mercury News will begin a three part series on Dependency Court, including extensive interviews with people inside the system, desperate for change.

Related Links: SJ Mercury News, Part 1
SJ Mercury News, Part 2
SJ Mercury News, Part 3

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.

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