SACRAMENTO (CN) – California’s abused and neglected children are falling through the cracks of an overburdened and underfunded court system, whose public defenders carry caseloads of 400 and have little time to protect the interests of their troubled clients in foster care, a class action claims in Federal Court.
Social workers and judicial referees are just as overwhelmed. Sacramento County has five judicial referees for more than 5,000 active cases. “A former lead dependency referee from Sacramento estimates that such caseloads afford referees roughly two minutes of court time per case,” the plaintiffs say.
The Children’s Advocacy Institute says an overwhelmed Dependency Court system with “crushing and unlawful caseloads” are causing harm to children who are shuffled from one foster care facility to another, and whose underpaid and always-changing court-appointed attorneys are typically their “last remaining guardians.”
One 13-year-old plaintiff, K.R., has “severe behavioral problems,” and has had six different court-appointed attorneys since 2005.
“K.R.’s lawyers have had almost no contact with her,” the complaint state. “Although her case has had 17 court hearings since September 2005, she has been interviewed only once outside of court (by a social worker). Further, her lawyers have not visited any of K.R.’s foster care placements nor have they had any contact with school personnel.”
High attorney turnover and insufficient funding are to blame. In the past two years 22 attorneys have left the nonprofit organization that contracts with Sacramento County to provide counsel for dependency hearings, and most of those worked in the system for less than a year.
The Administrative Office of the Courts, the defendant that allocates money to the Dependency Court, is “disparate and seemingly arbitrary” in its funding, the children’s attorneys say.
Sacramento County and Alameda County each receive about $2.6 million a year to pay court-appointed attorneys, yet Sacramento’s caseload is nearly twice that of Alameda.
“For each attorney that departs, the child must muster the strength to share his or her story, yet again, with a strange adult that the child is told to trust – an adult the child is told will be there to fight for him or her,” the complaint states. “Unfortunately, the child has already seen a myriad of ‘trustworthy adults’ leave him or her behind for other opportunities,”
The plaintiffs want a jury trial and an order mandating that the defendants named in the suit, which include the chair of the Judicial Council of California, the head of the AOC, and the presiding judge of the Superior Court of Sacramento County, provide additional resources to the Dependency Court.
They are represented by Jonathan Cohen with Winston & Strawn.