On Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced a proposed $54 million boost to the budget of the state’s dependency courts, blending an increase in state investment with federal funds newly available for the legal representation of children and families involved in the child welfare system.
Caseloads for attorneys who represent the nearly 54,000 children and their families in California’s foster care system are often staggeringly high, leading to little time for lawyers to work with families in crisis and the needs of children in the care of the state.
“The issue of dependency counsel — that’s a heartbreaker,” said Newsom at a press conference for his revised version of his state budget for 2019-2020.
The new budget increase means the state’s dependency courts would be on track to receive $190.7 million, building on the governor’s pledge to increase funding earlier this year. Back in January, Newsom’s first budget upped the amount of money pledged to the dependency court systems by $20 million, to $156.7 million.
But for more than a decade, many dependency court attorneys in the state have been pushing for a much bigger infusion of state money that would bring caseloads closer to the national standard of 100 clients suggested by the National Association of Counsel for Children. This year, advocates had been pushing the governor for a $70 million bump from last year, a sum that would bring down dependency caseloads to 141 clients per attorney at a cost of $207 million.
Newsom’s response on Thursday left many advocates hopeful for a dramatic change inside dependency courtrooms across the state. Funding the program at $190.7 million will allow for statewide caseloads to drop from 214 clients per attorney, the current average, to 153, according to the Judicial Council of California.
“We are thrilled that he called out the importance of dependency counsel today and acknowledged the deficit over the years, and his commitment to remedying that is fantastic,” said Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center (CLC), which provides legal representation to children in foster care in Los Angeles and Sacramento counties.
In the May Revise budget, Newsom also allocated $1.5 million from the ongoing general fund for the state Judicial Council to hire additional staff to collect and administer newly available reimbursements that are coming in the wake of a rule change in how federal foster care dollars are spent.
In December, the federal Department of Health and Human Services quietly announced that Title IV-E, the federal entitlement program for child welfare services, can now be used to help pay for legal aid to both parents and children. Despite the fact that the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) requires that children involved in child welfare cases are represented in court (though not necessarily by a lawyer), the federal Children’s Bureau had previously prevented Title IV-E funds from being used to meet that need.
This rule change will open up $34 million annually in new federal funds for legal representation in the state, according to Newsom’s budget — though the budget erroneously attributes this new funding stream to the Family First Prevention Services Act. These funds would likely pass from the state’s Department of Social Services to the Judicial Council through a memorandum of understanding.
Funding counsel for dependency proceedings has been considered a state fiscal responsibility since 1989 under the California Brown-Presley Trial Court Funding Act, which provides block grants to increase funding for all trial courts.
Advocates have consistently considered the program to be underfunded and that the caseloads of attorneys serving children and families in the child welfare system were too high and caused effective representation to suffer. In 2002, the Judicial Council of California and the American Humane Association conducted a caseload study to determine an appropriate caseload standard. They found that for optimal representation, caseloads should be capped at 77 per full-time attorney and at 141 for “base-level standard of performance.”
At the time, the average caseload in the state was 273. It continued to rise, averaging 325 clients per attorney between 2009-2015. According to advocates, the time demands on attorneys increased during this period, as new policies around foster care required more dependency court monitoring.
State funding for the dependency counsel stayed static at $103.7 million for years, and in 2015, the Judicial Council created a taskforce to revisit caseload standards and determined that $203 million was needed to fully fund the program. That year, $11 million was added to the budget, bringing it to $114.7 million. In Los Angeles County, home to the largest child welfare system in the state, this windfall brought average caseloads down to 250.
In 2017, the budget saw another bump to $136.7, but advocates have been pushing to raise it all the way to $207 million, which would mean a caseload of 141 for dependency court lawyers.
Eliza Patten, co-executive director of East Bay Defenders in Alameda County, said $207 million represents the floor of appropriate funding, allowing caseloads to drop just to the level needed for base-level performance, rather than the cap of 77 that research suggests is required for optimal representation.
“With a significant infusion of funding, we can do so much more to transform the child welfare outcomes,” Patten said. “And that affects not just families in the child welfare system, but their involvement with criminal justice and public health. I think there’s a lot of tremendous upside to investment here that I think hasn’t totally been understood by the legislature.”
California’s goal of capping caseloads at 141 is still quite high in comparison to the national trend, according to many dependency court lawyers.
“When our colleagues across the country learn that our target is 141, they say, ‘Wow that’s a lot of clients,’” said Heimov of CLC. “But this is an excellent step toward ensuring high-quality, multi-disciplinary representation for California children and parents who are involved with the child welfare system.”
The legislature has until June 15 to ratify a final budget, which must then be signed by the governor by the end of the month.
This article was updated to correctly identify the name of Children’s Law Center.
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