For months, the Los Angeles County Dependency Court has buzzed with a mystery: Lawyers for the county counsel's office repeatedly refused to allow Judge Amy Pellman to preside over their cases, but they wouldn't say why. The office's use of challenges, known as 170.6 motions, disrupted the courthouse, burdened families and troubled many observers.
The assumption was that Pellman must have demonstrated overwhelming bias. But that didn't mesh with what her colleagues said about her. The court's presiding judge, Michael Nash, described Pellman to me in July as "a great lawyer, a great child advocate."
After the county counsel's staff refused to discuss their reasoning with me, a source at the courthouse who had some insight into the battle suggested I might find the answer in a particular case file. That's easier said than done, as most dependency records — these are cases that involve children who have been removed from their parents and placed into the county's care — are off-limits to press and public. But the court has been opening up in recent months, and my request to review the file was granted by a judge over the objections of the county.
What the file contained was heart-wrenching. The case involved a mother (her name is in the file, but I'm withholding it to spare her children embarrassment) who battles mental illness and drugs. She hit one child repeatedly with a plastic hanger and let the others wallow in filth. She was arrested time and again on suspicion of burglary, battery and other offenses. Over the years, she had six children removed from her, with courts and social workers concluding that her bipolar disorder, erratic behavior and marijuana use rendered her incapable of taking proper care of her offspring.
"Her drug use history, her criminal history, her parental history and her combined life history all scream that she is not a capable mother," Evangela Williams, an investigator with the county's Department of Children and Family Services, concluded.
But the woman also has shown signs of trying to make herself a better parent. She attended classes in anger management, domestic violence and parenting, completing all of them successfully. And so, in February, when she gave birth to her seventh child, a daughter, she hoped to be allowed to raise this one herself.
A few months after the girl was born, authorities received an anonymous call warning that the baby might be in danger. But police who went to the mother's home found things in fairly good shape. The apartment was clean, the baby healthy and developing well. One officer believed he smelled beer on the mother's breath, but she was not intoxicated and there was no evidence of marijuana.
Nevertheless, in light of her history, authorities took the child away. The next day, Pellman was presented with the case — and asked to make a difficult decision: Should she remove a baby from her mother without any evidence of mistreatment, or allow her to return home and risk the child's neglect or mistreatment? That decision, of course, had to be guided by the law, and a history of mistreating children does not, by itself, mean that the government can seize a child who has not been abused.
Pellman weighed the evidence in a contentious hearing and finally concluded that the baby should return home. "Right now," she said, "I have no evidence of abuse."
The lawyer for the county, Michael Miller, objected vigorously. He appealed and asked the appellate court to stay Pellman's order. The appeals court agreed, and the child was again taken from the mother and placed in foster care.
That's a traumatic series of events but not a wildly unusual one in that courthouse. It was a close call by Pellman on an issue that well-meaning people could easily disagree about. What was surprising was that county counsel turned it into a vendetta. "There's been a war going on ever since," one of the lawyers in the case reminded Pellman at a subsequent hearing, "and this is at the point of that war."
It's a war with many casualties. Nash declined to comment on this case, but he acknowledged that other judges, already heavily burdened, have been forced to take on heavier caseloads.
The cost to families is even greater. Fighting for a child in a strange system can be terrifying and bewildering. This petulant campaign by county counsel introduces yet more delay and confusion. Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children's Law Center of Los Angeles, said the shuffle of cases "makes it even more overwhelming for families." And as she notes, "It's already overwhelming enough."