SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – As California lawmakers feverishly negotiate the state budget, its judges are ramping up efforts to ensure justice for abused and neglected children by pushing for $22 million to help alleviate the crushing caseloads in dependency court.
That figure represents only a fraction of the $88 million needed to bring the workload down to manageable levels. By law, poor children and their parents are required to have representation in dependency courts, where judges face grim decisions about removing children from their homes and sending them to foster care, and whether to terminate parents’ rights.
In 2007, the Judicial Council set a maximum caseload of 188 clients per attorney. But for decades, underpaid and overworked dependency lawyers have struggled with caseloads of at least double that.
At a budget hearing in April, Leslie Starr Heimov, executive director of the dependency nonprofit Children’s Law Center of California, said in some counties, attorneys currently have 350 to 400 clients.
“We can’t provide the level and type of advocacy that these children need and these families need without reasonable caseloads, without the resources to ensure frequent client contact, without access to clinical experts, training for our staff and adequate supervision,” Heimov, whose nonprofit represents all the foster children in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Placer counties, said.
Juvenile dependency is a special area of the law, one that’s required to police itself to ensure effective and adequate counsel.
“Our clients don’t have the capacity to evaluate the quality of representation they’re receiving,” she told lawmakers at the April hearing. “Simply paying a panel lawyer by the hour to show up in court does not ensure you that the child is getting good representation. There has to be supervision and infrastructure to ensure we’re doing our jobs properly. Our work continues to be more complex. We address new issues every year. The Legislature continues to pass important laws, and they’re not all being implemented and they’re not all being enforced because we don’t have time.”
On Monday, California’s judges entered the budget fray with a letter addressed to the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown.
“As presiding judges of our trial courts, we write to you to ask your support for $22 million in critically needed funding for dependency attorneys serving in the California courts,” San Diego Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Barton wrote in the letter, signed by 50 presiding judges throughout the state.
He said judges need court-appointed dependency attorneys to help them make the best decisions for the children and families who stand before them.
“Society’s most vulnerable people are arguably the children whose own parents have subjected them to abuse or neglect. When we accept the responsibility to intervene in these children’s lives, we also accept the responsibility to watch over them and the foster parents, relatives, social workers and others in whose care we place them,” he wrote. “To make these decisions, those judicial officers look to court-appointed dependency attorneys, not only to represent the legal interests of children, parents, and others, but also to express to the court the needs of foster children, their families, and their caregivers, so that the judicial officers can make the best decisions possible based on the best interests of the children involved.”
He added, “It is a legal specialty where there is no substitute for experience, and where a novice attorney, untrained and inexperienced, can do more harm than good.”
In some instances, exorbitant caseloads also violate the law. According to a white paper published by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2015, the number of cases dependency attorneys have in California has surged to a level that could violate federal legal requirements under Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act and Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act – which could in turn mean the loss of federal funds under these programs.
“Where underfunding causes court-appointed attorneys to maintain prohibitively high caseloads, the system itself can violate the law because it results in ineffective assistance of counsel in individual cases. Excessive caseloads are the primary indicator that attorneys cannot serve as competent counsel to their clients because, as the Judicial Council recognized, high caseloads prevent attorneys from performing even the minimum tasks required to represent their clients,” the ACLU’s report said. “Further, excessive caseloads in California have contributed to high attorney turnover, which has resulted in clients being represented by less experienced attorneys and for cases to be routinely transferred to attorneys who are unfamiliar with the clients and the facts surrounding the cases.”
On Friday, the Judicial Council moved to take some of the pressure off of California’s 30 smallest courts by approving a $2 million transfer of funding from larger courts over the next two years.
“The world of funding in this area is minute. It is wretched,” said Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
She said the courts have asked the Legislature for more dependency funding for years, and even heard strong support from lawmakers for an increase last year. But in the end, they failed to get it enacted in the final budget.
Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Monterey Bay, has also pressed to get dependency funding in this year’s budget. At a recent budget hearing, he said, “Last year we failed completely to put money in the budget for dependency counsel. We have to support this very vulnerable group of children who need us to step up for them and to provide them in a way no one else can.”
On Monday, Stone – the Assembly Judiciary Committee chair – pointed to a letter he sent to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon earlier this year.
“Dependency counsel across California have staggeringly high caseloads that make it difficult to provide even basic representation to children who have suffered deep trauma,” Stone said in an email. “I made the request to increase dependency counsel funds by $22 million, so that children can more quickly begin the family-reunification or permanent-placement process and obtain the services that they desperately need.”
Cantil-Sakauye said at Friday’s meeting that past years have been disappointing, but she’s hopeful that this year the Legislature will come through.
“Last year, we thought that we had agreement because we did not hear objection to it. We heard support for it. We know that last year it was eliminated from the budget. We dearly believe that this year, based on our conversations, there is a commitment to it,” she said.
“Trying to divide up this paltry amount is substandard and insufficient for the needs that we have,” she added.