They gather daily on the third floor of a Sacramento courthouse moms and dads, grandmas and aunties, babies and teens awaiting decisions that will alter their lives forever.
The hallway, with its industrial gray carpet and manila-colored walls, is where the bitterness and heartache of broken families are in plain view until the people are summoned.
Then the window on this world slams shut.
"The father in Family 102!" a county worker announced last week, and an agitated man clutching a document disappeared into Department 135.
It is business as usual inside Sacramento's William R. Ridgeway Family Relations Courthouse, but a giant crack has appeared in California's juvenile court proceedings, which are held behind closed doors.
Earlier this year, a Los Angeles judge ordered that his county's dependency courts be opened to the media, unless a judge rules otherwise in a specific case. The ruling by Presiding Judge Michael Nash has unleashed once again the passionate debate in California over whether abused and neglected children are best served under the cloak of secrecy and strict confidentiality.
Does public access to dependency courts revictimize children already traumatized? Or, as Nash believes, are the most vulnerable children better served by a court system that allows for scrutiny and accountability for its monumental acts?
"These dependency court judges have enormous life-or-death power where children live, what medications they'll be forced to take, whether they'll see their brother or sister again," said Ed Howard of the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law.
Yet unlike other government institutions, he said, dependency courts operate essentially in private, with unchecked power.
"We don't have the Legislature voting in secret," he said. "In a democracy, we hold people accountable. And it matters."
Nationally, at least 20 states have made their children's courts more accessible to the public. Until 1961, juvenile proceedings in California were not required to be closed, but a study prompted the Legislature that year to make the state's juvenile courts presumptively closed to the public.
Under current California law, dependency courts are presumed to be closed to the public, unless an interested party can demonstrate a legitimate interest in attending.
And that's where matters have stood until Nash, the state's longest-serving Juvenile Court judge, stepped into the fray.
Nash's ruling applies only to the dependency side of Los Angeles' Juvenile Court and not to delinquency proceedings, in which minors are accused of crimes. Dependency court is the destination for children who have been removed from their homes for suspected abuse or neglect, and the court must help determine how to keep them safe.
With Nash's blanket order in Los Angeles County, the burden of proof about access shifts from a news organization to those parties involved in the case. That means dependency hearings are presumed to be open to the news media (not the general public), unless participants successfully argue it would not be in a child's best interest.
The ruling has infuriated opponents, who have successfully beaten back a series of legislative attempts in California to open up the courts, including a bill last year by Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles. Opponents include advocates for foster children, attorneys for both children and their parents and the union representing social workers.
"A lot of youth don't want the details of their abuse going out to other people even other family members," said Chantel Johnson, legislative and policy coordinator for California Youth Connection, which serves California foster youths.
Johnson said many current and former foster youths worry about cyber-bullying and other consequences of their personal trials becoming public.
"A lot of times people don't understand what's all revealed in dependency court," she said. "A biological mother may not know who the father is, so they run four paternity tests. A youth's behavior whether he's 'out,' whether he's wetting the bed, whether he got a D in English, the details of the abuse, what his therapist thinks all sorts of very private information can come out."
Johnson acknowledged that some foster youths favor more openness and transparency, wishing that the court had held their social worker or attorney more accountable.
Nash's ruling in January has no immediate impact on Sacramento or any other California county outside Los Angeles, but advocates on both sides say other counties may follow. In some places, they say, they also see the tone shifting for better or worse.
Last week, for instance, a Sacramento Juvenile Court judge agreed to release sealed records in a controversial dependency case involving a missing child, Dwight Stallings. The boy's mother, Tanisha Edwards, has been unwilling or unable to produce the child or even prove that he is still alive.
In releasing confidential dependency court records to The Bee in the "Baby Dwight" case, Judge Jerilyn L. Borack determined that "the needs of the community and the protection of the child outweigh the policy considerations favoring confidentiality of juvenile case files."
Stacy Boulware Eurie, presiding judge of Sacramento's Juvenile Court, said she would not comment on Borack's decision or on any individual case before the court. But in an interview with The Bee, she said she is keenly aware of Judge Nash's decision in Los Angeles, and that it has "no impact here."
The court's job, she said, is to "apply the law as written" and in California, that means that juvenile courts are presumptively closed. But she said she values public interest and evaluates access on a case-by-case basis.
The presiding judge emphasized that she is mindful of the concerns raised by key players in the Sacramento Juvenile Court system.
One of those key figures is Leslie Starr Heimov, executive director of the Children's Law Center of California and a vocal opponent of Nash's ruling. Heimov's staff of attorneys took over Sacramento's contract last summer and now represents thousands of children in dependency courts both here and in Los Angeles County.
Earlier this year, Heimov's group challenged Nash's ruling in a state appeals court, but a three-member panel denied the petition.
Heimov told The Bee that CLC has "never been opposed to the courts being opened" to the media or other legitimate parties, but that shifting the burden to children and families was unfair.
"By putting the burden on a child instead of the burden on the person seeking the access, then it flip-flopped the priority," she said.
Heimov acknowledged that the L.A. situation has not been disastrous, and that so far, no children appear to have been harmed by media coverage.
This is exactly what supporters had hoped for and were convinced would happen.
"In many states that have open and transparent proceedings, it hasn't been demonstrated that it's harmed the children," said Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, which has fought for years to open dependency courts.
"It may not be a perfect world, but it's certainly better than cloaking it under a shroud of secrecy."