Newton: Targeting an L.A. judge

Last week, when a boy in Los Angeles foster care appeared before Judge Amy Pellman, she welcomed him warmly and clearly knew his history. Pellman asked how his martial-arts class was going, complimented him on his grades and urged him to enroll in a program that would help prepare him for college.

Another case that morning involved a 19-year-old woman preparing to emancipate from foster care. She boasted of keeping her grade-point average above 3.0; Pellman called that "awesome."

And when Pellman saw two boys at the back of the court stirring restlessly, she asked if either would like a teddy bear or a book. "A book," one replied. "Right answer," she said, and pointed him to a shelf full of choices.

That's the way Pellman's court works. It's all about the needs of children, unsurprising given Pellman's background. Before becoming a judge in 2008, she served for five years as the legal director for the Alliance for Children's Rights. She's written extensively about children and the law, focusing most specifically on the foster-care system. In 2003, the American Bar Assn. gave her its Child Advocacy Law Award.

So Pellman seems an unlikely candidate to be accused of endangering children. But that's exactly what is happening as part of a strange battle between her and the L.A. Department of County Counsel, whose lawyers lately have been routinely filing papers to remove Pellman from cases they handle. The challenges do not require explanation, so the reasons behind them are a bit murky. But the county counsel has succeeded in having Pellman taken off many cases in recent weeks, and that in turn has forced other judges at the Los Angeles Dependency Court to absorb her load.

James Owens, an assistant county counsel who oversees the office's Dependency Division, declined to comment in detail about the Pellman case, saying, "We don't discuss judges in public." He also declined to say precisely how often lawyers with his office have filed motions to remove Pellman. Producing such a number, he said, "would take a lot of work." He did allow that the objections have been filed "frequently."

Others familiar with the conflict said county lawyers believe that Pellman is too skeptical of the Department of Children and Family Services and, over the objections of social workers, too willing to return children to homes where there has been domestic violence.

Whether to return children in foster care to their parents is one of the toughest issues dependency judges have to deal with. Foster care is rarely a good long-term solution, and reunification can be the best option if the custodial parent has taken responsibility for ensuring a safe environment for the child. On the other hand, returning a child to an unsafe situation can result in tragedy — and it has on more than one occasion in Los Angeles County.

Pellman would not comment on the challenges being filed against her, but I've watched her handle several dozen cases in recent months, courtesy of a new openness that prevails in Los Angeles Dependency Court since Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash opened the courthouse to the press earlier this year.

At least in my experience, Pellman is the opposite of reckless with the fates of the children before her. To the contrary, she's attentive and efficient and demonstrably engaged in the lives of children. Her bench is bracketed by teddy bears, and a SpongeBob SquarePants tapestry covers one courtroom wall. Last week, one young woman who's in foster care complained to Pellman that she'd gone without the right eyeglasses since early this year and that when her foster home was changed, her clothes were left behind. The judge listened patiently and then admonished the child's social worker for the breakdown that has compounded the girl's troubles and prevented her from landing a summer job.

"I don't feel enough effort was put in," Pellman sternly remarked.

That kind of admonishment also is typical of Pellman. She's hard on social workers and on the lawyers who represent them. And she's been at odds with the Department of Children and Family Services for years, dating to her time with the alliance, when Pellman fought to close the county's orphanage and the department resisted. Given that history and her temperament, Pellman's defenders believe that the campaign against her is not really about defending children so much as it is about retaliating against a judge who's tough and sharp-tongued.

Nash concedes that the county counsel has the right to object to Pellman, but he's perplexed by the controversy. "She's professional and focused … a great lawyer, a great child advocate," Nash said. "She's not a nasty cuss like I was at times."

And as for the allegation that Pellman is putting children at risk? Nash did not mince words: "I just think that's ludicrous."

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.

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