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The following is an article published in the Daily Journal on January 12, 2017.
Dependency lawyers bemoan governor’s refusal to boost budget
Dependency attorneys say they are overburdened
By L.J. Williamson
When a budget increase for dependency counsel funding was yanked from the 2014 California budget at the eleventh hour, Ed Howard, for the first time in his professional career, cried. But now that attorneys who represent abused and neglected children have been through the same experience for three of the last four budgets, they are “saddened, but not surprised.”
On Tuesday, Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget numbers for dependency counsel stayed flat, offering no relief to overloaded dependency lawyers. The Judicial Council has said that dependency attorneys should handle a maximum 141 cases, but in many counties, attorneys are acting as advocates for nearly twice that number of children.
“We’re now down to 220 as the average caseload in LA, but we were at over 300 in 2014 when we started this journey,” said Leslie Starr Heimov, executive director of Children’s Law Center of California, a dependency counsel nonprofit.
Howard, senior counsel for University of San Diego School of Law’s Children’s Advocacy Institute, and other dependency attorneys were heartened when the Legislature increased dependency counsel funding by $11 million in 2015. But no other budgetary help has followed since then.
“It’s hard to find a more compelling need in the court system, and yet the budget proposes to increase spending for judges’ salaries and benefits but not dependency cases,” said Kevin G. Baker, Legislative Director for ACLU California.
Baker said the state’s failure to provide sufficient funding for dependency counsel has violated children’s and parents’ rights to competent and effective representation in dependency proceedings.
Without more money, the language being bandied about in dependency circles — words like “crisis” and “collapse” — are apt, Howard said.
“Imagine yourself in this job. You wake up every day and know that you’re violating your own ethics,” lamented Howard. “At worst, lawyers throughout the state will say, ‘No more, I can’t take any more cases.'” Howard said he has spoken to large numbers of lawyers who have said they have thought about rejecting more cases. The dependency budget doesn’t have to be perfected this year, he explained, “but we can’t be shut out again.”
California is facing a number of significant pressures, said H.D. Palmer, deputy director of external affairs for the state Department of Finance, with revenue receipts below projections and the unknowns that come with the incoming Trump administration. “All of those things make a strong case for a prudent budget.”
It isn’t that anyone opposes funding for counsel for abused and neglected kids, said Senator Holly J. Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, chair of the Senate Budget & Fiscal Review Committee, who said the issue has bipartisan support. “I think what you may hear from the administration is the priorities, in the overall scheme of things. You’re not going to get anybody that says we oppose it because children aren’t worthy.”
The issue is righteous, Mitchell said, but is one of many competing interests the state is trying to address as the state’s financial recovery proceeds. Other items that did receive boosts in the 2017 budget include K-12 education, early learning programs, foster care youth education, and in-home supportive services for the disabled.
There’s a danger of addressing critical public policy issues through the budget process, Mitchell said, where the weight of the issue can sometimes be lost when stuck with a price tag. “It could be the most critical issue to the most Californians, but particularly in this case, there’s no strong, supersonic lobby,” she added.
Others echoed Mitchell’s sentiment that a lack political juice works against the issue. Foster kids don’t show up at political rallies, and they don’t vote.
Dependency Legal Services, for example, is a nonprofit law firm that exclusively offers indigent representation in dependency cases, with contracts in nine counties. But Chief Operating Officer David Meyers said he may be forced to close shop in one or more of those locations.
“I just feel deflated and disappointed,” Meyers said of the string of budget defeats. According to calculations from the Judicial Council, the total need for court-appointed dependency counsel is $202.9 million per year. The $114.7 million in the current state budget meets only 57 percent of that need.
“There are three types of counties: ‘underfunded,’ ‘severely underfunded,’ and ‘in crisis,'” Meyers said. “The actual dollars are so low we may have no choice but to leave … for people like me doing this for more than 20 years, you can’t work for less than you would get at a minimum wage job.”
In Mendocino County, Meyers said there are only about five attorneys representing all of that county’s children in dependency. And one of them is actively looking for another job, he said.
Firm closures are not theory, but reality. In October, Dependency Legal Group of San Diego (DLG) closed its doors after its contract with the Judicial Council expired.
“The State’s new budget for juvenile dependency representation in San Diego County can no longer support the organizational structure of DLG and the accompanying scope of services it has been providing the community since 2010,” DLG explained on its webpage.
Meyers and others said the Judicial Council is largely to blame for the disparities, because of an outmoded formula for allocating funds.
The Judicial Council instituted a four-year reallocation plan in 2015 to more equitably distribute funds, which benefited some counties but further starved others. A subcommittee directed to reexamine the allocation formula is expected to report back to the council this May.
“The primary issue is not the allocation formula adopted by the Judicial Council; the primary issue is adequate funding for court-appointed dependency counsel who do vital and life-saving work on behalf of the state’s dependent children,” said a Judicial Council spokesperson. “That’s why the council continues to advocate every year for adequate funding for this and other important needs.”
The hope of the reallocation plan was that it would include additional funds, Heimov said. “Equity is an important part of the solution, but it doesn’t work all by itself.”Heimov said advocates will spend the next five and a half months trying to get more money in the May revised budget. If that doesn’t happen, they have little choice but to keep going.
“Most of us can’t say no to new clients because our contracts say we will represent 100 percent of the children,” she said. “What ends up happening is we work harder but are able to do less for each child.”
Lawyers are forced to triage, and the kids who are not in crisis don’t get attention, Heimov said. That might mean immediately sorting out Medi-Cal coverage for the infant with a 103-degree fever, but postponing work for the 10-year-old who’s being expelled for acting out in school.
“I don’t want to do this for the next 20 years asking for money,” Heimov said. “I want to get where the funding is adequate so we can do our jobs.”
Janssen & Associates is conducting EBCLO’s search for a new Executive Director. To see the job description and instructions about how to apply click here: EBCLO ED Job Announcement – 2017
EBCLO’s Community-based Advocacy for Resources and Education (C.A.R.E.) program was awarded a $25,000 grant from the Andrus Family Fund this week. The grant will help the East Bay Children’s Law Offices implement programming which protects the rights of foster youth beyond the courtroom by promoting educational equity, healthy transitions to young adulthood, and trauma-informed responses and services. The Andrus Family Fund seeks to foster just and sustainable change in the United States. They support organizations that advance social justice and improve outcomes for vulnerable youth. EBCLO is grateful to be among the organizations supported by the Andrus Family Fund and looks forward to continued collaboration for the benefit of Alameda County youth.
Expected state budget cuts hit home to the tune of $17,946.18 per month here at EBCLO. The Judicial Council of California has determined it costs $202.9 million/year to adequately fund counsel for children and families in child welfare cases. Yet the 2016-2017 budget allocates only $114.7 million. Our share of this deficit is over $215,000.
We need your help. We are often asked how we do this work that we love. It’s never been easy–and now it’s even harder. We are inviting you to join in the work with us by providing the financial support we need to keep our doors open. Our mission is to provide top notch holistic legal services to the most vulnerable children in our community. Our clients are not someone else’s children; they are all of our children. We invite you to contribute $18/month because we have lost $18,000/month. Our hope is that with partners like you sharing in our mission, we will be able to continue to provide a strong voice for the children and youth we serve. Thank you for your support.
The California Child Welfare Co-Investment Partnership released a report about the important role the courts play in the child welfare system. The numbers speak for themselves. A 2015-2016 study measured the cost of providing representation to children and families in the dependency system at $202.9 million statewide. For the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the California Judicial Council has allocated $114.7 million covering only 56 percent of the needed funding.
Click here to read the study: On Balance– The Courts and Child Welfare
How does this affect EBCLO? Starting September 1, 2016, we are receiving $17,946.18 less from the State of California each month. Want to help make up the difference? Donate on our website today!
EBCLO’s Community-based Advocacy for Resources and Education (C.A.R.E.) program recently received its first ever $10,000 grant from Sky Ranch Foundation. Founded in 1961, Sky Ranch Foundation strives to be the uniting force within the beverage industry for aid to at-risk youth and reflects the industry’s great concern and commitment to the youth of America. EBCLO is honored to be among their grantees and looks forward a long partnership with Sky Ranch. We were delighted to host a visit from Sky Ranch Board Member Mike Donohoe this week (pictured above with Education Attorney Haley Fagan, Board President Kathy Siegel, Interim Executive Director Susan Walsh, Director of Finance Ana Wong and Managing Attorney Joy Ricardo). He shares our enthusiasm for EBCLO’s mission, and his generosity is much appreciated. Thank you Sky Ranch!
Yesterday, Governor Edmund G. Brown announced his latest appointments to the bench. Among them was East Bay Children’s Law Offices Executive Director Roger Chan who was appointed to serve in the San Francisco Superior Court. Roger co-founded EBCLO in 2009 and has served as its Executive Director ever since. He will be greatly missed by everyone at EBCLO and in Alameda County. Our loss is San Francisco’s gain. To read the Governor’s press release, click here.
EBCLO is proud to announce that our former intern and Class of 2016 Golden Gate University Law School graduate, Jessie Conradi, has been awarded the prestigious Equal Justice Works Fellowship for her project expanding EBCLO’s legal advocacy to create access to quality mental health services for our foster youth clients. Her project is sponsored by Clorox as well as the law firm of Kilpatrick, Townsend & Stockton. One of only 61 Equal Justice Works projects selected nationwide, Jessie’s project aims to assist our office in identifying high risk youth earlier, advocating for appropriate services, training our social workers and attorneys and establishing a systemic coalition to address systemic deficiencies. The anticipated result is that youth will increase school attendance, decrease placement changes, be properly medicated and have reduced exposure to the juvenile justice system. Jessie holds a Masters in Social Work from the Catholic University of America and her JD from Golden Gate University. We wish her the best of luck with the bar exam this summer and look forward to her project beginning in September of 2016.
Most EBCLO clients are only ever represented by one attorney. Sometimes, however, a youth might have the opportunity to work with our specialty attorneys regarding education or emancipation issues. And then there’s the youth whose lawyer goes on maternity leave, or even vacation, and the youth meets another fabulous EBCLO attorney. “Rose” was one such client. Not only did she meet several of us, but she endeared herself to every single one of us. Rose had some fits and starts with school, but last year she sought out someone to become her foster family. With that support, she re-committed herself to school and found herself succeeding. The judge noticed and asked her about school. She invited him to her graduation. Though he couldn’t make it, he suggested that maybe Rose’s lawyer would like to attend. Indeed, Lisa Friedman did want to attend.
Rose made such an impact on every EBCLO attorney she met that they all pitched in to celebrate her high school graduation. Two former EBCLO attorneys, Bianca Bedigian and Jenny Yu, even made arrangements to personally sign Rose’s graduation card and contribute to a gift for her. And in the audience at her graduation in the central valley . . . her foster family, her biological family and EBCLO attorneys Dominique Pinkney and Lisa Friedman.
Congratulations to Rose and three cheers for her EBCLO Dream Team as well.
What a spring it was for 19 year old EBCLO client Julius. First he was MetWest High School’s Prom King. Then he earned his high school diploma, graduating with a 3.7 GPA. Having entered the school with less than a 2.0, his grit and great sense of humor, not to mention the incredible support of his school and his foster family, propelled Julius past the finish line.
Julius didn’t spend his entire high school career in foster care. Rather, two years ago when his caregiver was evicted and no one in his family would take him in, Julius found his own family. He describes that his former pediatrician and her family “had a soft spot for me, I guess.” With the help of EBCLO, the relationship was made official, but the support of Julius’ new family came naturally. “If I needed something, I knew I could ask them. . . even if it was ridiculous,” says Julius.
Two years later this delightful young man has accomplished a lot for himself-in addition to being Prom King and a high school graduate, he has a supportive family, a new job and plans to attend community college in the fall to earn a trade like auto mechanics or carpentry. He also has a new name thanks to his EBCLO attorney, Liz Aleman. Julius had wanted his name changed for at least 8 years, and Ms. Aleman wasted no time. Julius was able to enter adulthood officially using the name he’d informally used for so long. What’s Julius’ advice for other kids in the system? “Persevere through any situation even if you think you won’t make it out. You have to keep going because you never know what’s on the other side. And accept yourself; learn to love yourself. You have to be comfortable with who you are and have confidence.”