Next year’s California state budget does not include increased funding for child welfare courts, foiling efforts by the California legislature to decrease the overwhelming caseloads faced by lawyers for foster youth.
The California State Assembly and Senate had both signed off on a modest pot of money earmarked to help children’s legal representatives reduce caseloads that have grown to more than 400 children per lawyer in some counties.
The state would have doled out $11 million in funding over the next year to help lower caseloads in child-welfare courts, followed by $22 million in the second year and $33 million in the third year.
However, that money vanished in the final version of the budget that was sent to the Gov. Jerry Brown (D) for approval on Sunday.
Negotiations over the budget will commence this week, and the San Francisco Chronicle is among the voices urging the governor and legislature to provide relief to lawyers that face sky-high caseloads and frequent turnover
According to Kendall Marlowe, executive director of the National Association of Counsel for Children, the situation in California is not unique. Though caseloads and support vary from state to state, funding for legal counsel for foster children across the nation is frequently threatened by the budgetary process and the perception of legal representation for foster youth as less important than other parts of the judicial system.
“As adults, we would never tolerate walking into our attorney’s office and being told to wait behind 50 or 60 other people,” Marlowe said. “That’s what we’re asking foster children to accept.”
The lack of dedicated counsel has plagued California dependency courts for years. In a three-part series in 2008, San Jose Mercury News reporter Karen de Sá exposed a rapid-fire court process, with hundreds of cases decided each day while parents and foster youths met their respective lawyers for the first time just minutes before proceedings.
A 2008 report from the California Judicial Council suggested that the workload for children’s representatives should be capped at 188 cases, with 77 deemed the optimal number. Unfortunately, the current caseload in Los Angeles County and many other counties across the state is nowhere near that number.
The Children’s Law Center, which provides legal representation for children in foster care in Los Angeles and Sacramento counties, is facing caseloads of more than 300 children per lawyer in Los Angeles County, according to Interim Policy Director Susan Abrams. Current funding is not covering the increased number of child welfare cases that are heading through the child welfare court system.
Excessive caseloads have been shown to negatively impact the quality and continuity of service, and with current caseloads, attorneys like the Children’s Law Center’s Jennifer McCartney are finding it difficult to keep up.
“We don’t have time to dive in deep right now,” McCartney said. “With the current caseload, it’s hard to be there for our clients: to find out what’s going on in their life, to talk to their caregiver, to their therapist.”
With a workload that fluctuates between 200 and 400 cases, McCartney is in court every day of the week and rarely has time to prepare for the next day’s cases until the night before.
Michael Nash, the presiding judge of Los Angeles County’s juvenile courts, describes the elevated caseloads as a factor that is placing a high degree of pressure on the courts as they make critical decisions for foster children.
“When you look at the dependency court, we only have so many minutes in each day to make numerous life-changing decisions about the children,” Nash said.
Budget cuts have hit Nash’s court in recent years, from slashed operating hours to reductions in the number of juvenile court referees. And among attorneys for foster youth, high caseloads and long hours have contributed to significant turnover, he said.
Understanding the complex child-welfare courts often requires a steep learning curve for lawyers representing foster children, according to Nash. “There are no shortcuts, no magic pills. It takes time, energy and hard work to work within the individual needs of each child that comes through the court.”
Abrams said that the Children’s Law Center and other advocates for foster youth will keep pushing for additional funding in the next budget cycle.
“The voice of foster children not being heard in budgetary process, and this is not something we’re going to give up on,” Abrams said.
Jeremy Loudenback is a Journalism for Social Change Fellow and a graduate student at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.