State program will oversee Santa Clara County's dependency court lawyers
COUNTY DEPENDENCY COURT LAWYERS UNDER INCREASED SCRUTINY
By Deborah Lohse
Article Launched: 05/26/2008 01:31:54 AM PDT
Santa Clara County Superior Court officials have asked the state to take over the job of hiring and overseeing lawyers who represent parents and children in juvenile dependency court, even as an audit continues of the controversial firm that has been doing much of the job for the past 12 years.
Starting July 1, Santa Clara County will join a $50 million statewide program intended to improve the little-known court system that decides the fate of children removed from their homes after allegations of abuse or neglect.
That system has come under increased scrutiny since February, when the Mercury News published a series of articles describing the slipshod nature of legal representation and decision-making in dependency court.
Once Santa Clara County joins the state program, state officials will oversee two groups of attorneys: Santa Clara Juvenile Defenders, which until Oct. 1 has a contract to represent parents, and has been a focus of criticism; and the juvenile dependency unit of the county district attorney's office, which represents children under a contract ending June 30, 2009.
In response to questions from the Mercury News, Superior Court Chief Executive Kiri Torre said the issues surrounding Juvenile Defenders were 'a factor,' but not the determining one, in why the court is joining the program, known as DRAFT. She said the court also wants to support the state Judicial Council's goal of 'uniform compensation, training and caseload standards' for lawyers who represent parents and children in dependency court.
The 3-year-old program got under way after state officials, who had been trying to get more money from the Legislature for dependency legal services, realized they could not account for how well or poorly the money had been spent so far.
'We were asking for more funding, but we couldn't provide basic information like how many clients were being served,' said Leah Wilson, a manager with the Administrative Office of the Courts' Center for Families, Children and the Courts.
The problems with Juvenile Defenders were typical of what the state found when officials began to investigate. The Mercury News series described the firm's timid defense of parents, scant use of outside experts to bolster parent's cases, low attorney pay and high turnover.
Among other revelations, the firm's founder Gary Proctor admitted that he had not hired full-time social workers to assist with families as his contract required, and his attorneys too infrequently filed appeals when their clients faced losing their kids. After resigning in mid-February from the firm he co-founded, Proctor, who had been a highly respected defense attorney in Orange County, committed suicide March 9.
Since at least December - amid Mercury News inquiries - Torre, the court's general counsel James Rumble, and the state Judicial Council have been trying to collect 10 years of financial and other data from Juvenile Defenders. The inquiry is seeking to determine whether the firm complied with the terms of its various contracts, which added up to $26 million since 1996.
In February, the county asked for assistance in the audit from the state's Administrative Office of the Courts.
Current representatives of Juvenile Defenders have not responded to repeated requests from the Mercury News for comment. But some current employees, who requested anonymity to avoid getting fired, said the firm has been trying to hire social workers without success, and that the 18 or so lawyers are still underpaid, overloaded and unable to return all their client phone calls.
One thing that has changed, they say: Managers have been signing off on the hiring of experts to bolster parents' cases.
Wilson, while not commenting directly on that firm, said such problems are the reason that the state DRAFT program was created.
'Dependency lawyers are the people that are really serving at the forefront of efforts to bring broken families back together,' Wilson said. 'We can't rely on the social services agencies' benevolence to do that,' she said.
A request for proposals from law firms or groups hoping to represent parents in Santa Clara County was issued Friday. Those seeking the job will have to agree to new terms imposed by the state, although budget constraints may limit the state's ability to impose some of them:
• Average pay for lawyers representing parents and children in high-cost counties like Santa Clara should aim to be at least $70,000, rather than the $50,000 that Juvenile Defenders pays its starting junior lawyers.
• Lawyers must give detailed reports as to how they spend their time. How many hours did lawyers spend, on average, with each client? How much time did they spend prepping them for trial?
'I think that's awesome,' said one lawyer for Juvenile Defenders, who said such reporting might reveal just how overworked and unable to fully serve clients she and her fellow lawyers are.
• Lawyers should aim to have no more than 188 to 200 clients, and then only if there is one social worker or investigator for every two lawyers at the firm. Juvenile Defenders lawyers average about 153 clients apiece, but until the Mercury News' inquiries, had no social workers or investigators.
• Performance will be monitored. The state will compare the firm's hours on various tasks - filing appeals, for instance, or meeting in person with clients - with a statewide average. If a firm comes up short - as Juvenile Defenders has been accused of doing in several areas - the state will step in and make suggestions for changes, Wilson said.
Mercury News Staff Writer Karen de Sá contributed to this report.
Contact Deborah Lohse at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 295-3983.