The Children Left Behind
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The Children Left Behind

Funding cutbacks make sad situations even worse behind the closed doors of California's dependency courts.

December 2013


Photo by Jose Luis Villegas

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Located miles away from downtown Sacramento in the William R. Ridgeway Family Relations Courthouse, the dependency court does a brisk business on early mornings. Attorneys representing parents and children race through a calendar call for the day's proceedings. In each courtroom, a judge or referee sits at a high wooden desk as the advocates, standing in a semicircle, shuffle papers below.

The calendar call is fast and clinical. At 8:55 a.m. a case is held over. At 8.57 a.m. the attorney for a parent asks for an extension so that he can meet with his client. A few minutes later the judge calls another case, quickly followed by one involving allegations of serious child abuse: This one takes perhaps five minutes in the telling. Shortly after 9 a.m., the day's proceedings have been set.

For the next several hours, judges or court referees will hear progress reports on drug addictions, housing situations, foster care placements, and - in some cases - pending criminal prosecutions. Family members mill around in the hallways, playing video games on their cell phones or reading newspapers. Incarcerated adults brought from the county jail in jumpsuits and handcuffs wait in a separate holding area, as do children transported from juvenile hall.

Their cases might be called early, or not for hours. The family members commonly will have just minutes to appear in front of a court that will determine whether a child is returned home, placed in foster care, or put up for adoption - whether, in short, the essential rights of a parent or guardian are upheld or permanently lost.

In California, the juvenile dependency court system is separate from delinquency courts, which are governed by different sections of the state Welfare and Institutions Code. Nearly 500,000 reports of child abuse and neglect are filed each year, and more than 22,000 children enter foster care for the first time. Currently, according to UC Berkeley's Center for Social Services Research, almost 58,000 children in the state live apart from their families in child welfare-supervised care.

For families caught in this system - narrowly focused on minors who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected - waiting is nothing new. They wait in long lines to go through metal detectors at the courthouse door. They wait to file papers at counters where most of the clerks' stations are shuttered because of funding cutbacks. They wait for meetings with their attorneys, and they wait for the court to call their cases.

In most counties, dependency court hearings are closed to reporters. Sacramento County's Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Jerilyn L. Borack granted me access to her courtroom for several days, but only if I agreed not to disclose particulars about specific cases or individual clients.

I listened to teenagers describe how they are trying to get their lives together after police arrests, or explain their plans to enter vocational school. I watched parents review their experiences in drug treatment, and attorneys read out reports from social workers and school truancy officers. In all of these proceedings, I was struck by the calm that prevailed. Rarely did the tone become overtly adversarial; more frequently, the attorneys and social workers acted together, as an enlarged social service community. They talked about their clients' problems, their achievements, and their continuing challenges, and they attempted to reach a fair result.

The parents and kids who testified at these hearings seemed strangely passive in the way they presented themselves. Occasionally, a kid would protest an accusation by a foster parent about staying out too late, or deny a truancy charge by a school official. But mostly they sat quietly before the authority figures, permitting their attorneys to do the talking.

The judges I watched seemed to care deeply about the families. They read over school and probation reports on the minors, and asked questions of parents about their counseling or drug treatment programs. For the most part their rulings seemed reasonable, given the available facts presented by social workers and investigators and the tight time constraints of the process.

Dependency court judges have authority to declare a child to be a dependent of the court in order to be safe. The judge can return a child to the parents - sometimes under specific conditions, such as attending drug treatment, parenting, or anger management programs - if they can care for the child safely. Or the judge can place the child in foster care, reconsidering the decision every 6 months up to a maximum of 18 months. At the end of a family "reunification" period, the court must decide either to remove limitations on parental rights or to terminate them altogether, freeing the child for adoption.

Currently, roughly 2,800 children are involved in Sacramento's dependency courts - less than half the all-time high of nearly 6,000 cases in 2000, when more staff and resources were available. Whether the decline is because fewer kids are being abused or because social workers are investigating fewer claims, nobody seems to know.

Observing dependency proceedings in Sacramento and in several other Central Valley courts, I had the sense of peering through a window into a hidden world where an overburdened court, lawyers, and social workers attempt to deal with the daily heartaches of troubled families. Nowhere in the California judicial system is the impact of budget cutbacks more apparent - or more painfully felt by the parties.

Brenda R. Dabney, one of six directors of the nonprofit Children's Law Center of California, arrives at the Ridgeway Courthouse with a certain look that's calculated to put young clients at ease: professional but not intimidating. She carries a pink-covered iPad and on sunny days wears large butterfly sunglasses. "A lot of this job is more than just law," she says. "To a certain extent, it is layman's counseling - listening to what's going on in people's lives."

But dependency court, Dabney admits, "has more sadness than happiness. You keep working among the sad cases in the hope you'll convert it into a happy one." In addition to the clients it represents in Sacramento County, the Children's Law Center serves more than 25,000 children from offices in Los Angeles County.

"We're dealing with a lot of broken adults who were broken kids a long time ago," Dabney continues. "Across all lines [of race and class], drug abuse is the biggest issue here. Mostly meth. Although I was surprised to find a fair amount of heroin in this town."

Neglect, she notes, is more common than flat-out physical abuse. "There are not fewer kids at risk out there. But there are fewer people to locate and find them. That's pretty frightening to me."

For starters, the number of county social workers available to investigate cases has declined. "When I first started working here," recalls parents attorney Michael A. DeDecker of Sacramento's DeDecker & Meltzer, "I had [county] social workers who would drive to the clients, pick them up, take them to court. Now it can take two to three months even to get [clients] started in services."

DeDecker adds, "A lot of times, we don't see clients until their day in court. Then you might have five to ten minutes to talk with them about 20 years of their family history." Though he still takes appointments as a conflicts counsel, DeDecker recently started a private practice so that he could devote to his clients the time he believes necessary in such cases.

Nickolaus C. Knight, writ supervisor at the Children's Law Center, sees the daily consequences of the court system's inadequate resources. He bemoans "the missed appointments and the unreturned phone calls" that accumulate, which add to "the frustrations of attorneys, social workers, judges, parents, and, most of all, the youth."

The harm to families resulting from court funding cuts may not be obvious. But kids could needlessly be sent to group homes because there aren't enough social workers to locate a sympathetic relative. Or parents might enter a hearing unprepared after meeting their lawyer only minutes before. If courts can't provide interpreters to adults who don't speak or read English, their cases are delayed; meanwhile, the children remain in limbo. Several attorneys and judges I spoke with told me these concerns are real and increasing.

"There's pressure on every county to do things in the quickest way possible," says Abigail Trillin of Legal Services for Children in San Francisco. The more funding cuts, she says, "the more pressure you have to do it for less - which has huge risks for the clients."

To an outsider, it looks like a slow-burning crisis - a cumulative set of indignities and petty humiliations, exacerbated by fiscal stress - that puts at risk the integrity of a system with the power to break up families.

California's Welfare and Institution Code outlines the standards for declaring a child to be a dependent of the court and removing parental supervision. (See Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 300.) If the child has been removed from the home, county child protective services has 48 hours to file a petition justifying the action, and a hearing must be held on the next court day (§ 313). If the child has not been removed, the hearing occurs within 15 court days. (See Cal. Rules of Ct. rule 5.670.) Eventually, the court will determine whether the child should be declared a dependent of the court, and if so rule on whether the child should be placed in foster care.

The parents and children are statutorily entitled to legal representation, but usually they cannot afford to hire their own lawyers. The court appoints lawyers to represent indigent parents, and all dependent children. (Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 317.)

In 1965 the Legislature imposed liability on a parent or guardian for the cost of legal services provided to a child in juvenile court proceedings (§ 903.1). The state Supreme Court upheld the statute, ruling that the cost of legal services for a youth subject to dependency proceedings fell within the scope of a responsible person's common law obligation to supply a child with the necessities of life. (In re Ricky H., 2 Cal. 3d 513 (1970).)

If parental rights are terminated, parents have 60 days to appeal. (Cal. Rules of Ct. rule 8.406(a).) As long as an appeal is pending, a child cannot be adopted. If parental rights are permanently terminated, a hearing will be scheduled to determine child placement and when the adoption process may begin (§ 366.26).

The longer these proceedings take, of course, the longer families remain in suspended animation. Chronic delays have long been a concern of the Center for Families, Children and the Courts, a division of the Judicial Council's Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) created in February 2000 to coordinate all matters related to the juvenile court system. A dependency court reassessment published by the office in 2005 recommended that courts reduce waiting times for hearings, consider holding parties accountable for late and incomplete reports, and grant continuances only for good cause. Yet five years later the AOC found that the average foster care case takes 1.2 years and eleven separate hearings to resolve permanently. The most common reasons for delay, judges reported, include late agency reports; absent, improper, or late notice; unavailability of attorneys; and insufficient time to conduct thorough hearings.

Dependency court operational costs, allocated through the state's Trial Court Trust Fund (Gov't Code § 68085), cover judicial officers, court staff, reporters, interpreters, and dependency counsel for indigent parents and children. The AOC administers funding and provides project monitoring for court-appointed dependency counsel in all 58 counties. In 20 volunteer counties that account for approximately 60 percent of dependency court filings, it conducts competitive bidding and manages attorney contracts for appointed counsel through the Dependency Representation, Administration, Funding, and Training (DRAFT) program. The remaining 38 counties independently negotiate contracts for appointed counsel.

Last year, the Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee recommended that the baseline allocation for dependency courts be maintained at $103 million - down several millions from before the 2008 recession, and many millions lower if adjusted for inflation.

The general effects are apparent in every California county. According to a 2013 report by the Assembly Judiciary Committee, 46 courthouses have closed since 2007; 164 courtrooms have been shut; and the hours that court services are staffed have declined nearly 20 percent. Even before the financial crisis, funding was tight for the critical support systems integral to dependency courts. Yet since 2008, nearly 2,000 court employees have been laid off and 30 courts have eliminated their court reporters for civil, family, and probate matters.

In some counties, severe cuts have caused the judges' workloads to skyrocket. The San Jose Mercury News reported in 2011 that a dependency court judge in San Joaquin County had ruled on 135 family cases in a single day.

Across the state, the number of courts available to hear these cases has been cut. In Alameda County, for instance, the four full-time dependency courtrooms were reorganized into three in 2011, according to juvenile court Presiding Judge Rhonda Burgess. "These are challenging, difficult cases, and they are necessarily emotional for the families," she says. "If you've got a particularly heavy calendar, it's hard to give everything you've got to every family in front of you, because there are other families sitting in the hallway."

Consolidating the courtrooms, says Roger Chan of East Bay Children's Law Offices in Oakland, "means that clients have to travel farther to get to court, and we have to wait longer for hearings or to get a court date. Everything starts to back up."

And when the process backs up, Chan says, the courts bump up against the statutory requirements and may not be able to order permanent plans for children in a timely way. Delays in determining parental rights can mean kids end up being bounced from one foster home to the next for years, instead of being offered up for adoption and a chance at a more stable home life. No one benefits from these setbacks. But they have become all too common.

At each step in the proceedings, delays lead to continuances, says Stanislaus County Juvenile Dependency Judge Ann Q. Ameral. "It might be a couple days or a week," she says. "It adds to the workload of the entire court as additional minute orders have to be generated."

Rebecca Fleming, the county's superior court administrator, adds, "We're in the fifth year of cuts. It's a battleground for money - everyone's hurting so much, and every program is worthy."

Caseloads for contract attorneys - often young and idealistic or simply willing to work for a bare-bones salary - have risen in many counties. A 2002 study commissioned by the Judicial Council recommended a maximum case-load of 141 cases per full-time dependency attorney. At the time, the current statewide average was 273. Following a 2008 DRAFT project on caseloads, the Judicial Council recommended a standard of 188 cases, with one half-time investigator or social worker per attorney. But by then the average caseload had crept up to 283 - with no change in the state's baseline budget.

When Trillin and her colleagues at San Francisco's Legal Services for Children were told of the funding freeze, she recalls, they were instructed to simply devote less time to each case. "It's hard on your clients, because sometimes you need to spend that time," she says.

In addition to their funding problems, dependency courts struggle with a reputation for inadequate service to families. Commonly, Child Protective Services takes the blame when the local press discover that social workers missed signs of neglect or abuse, or that minors were seriously injured, went missing, or were found dead. Recently, the Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times have published articles about toddlers supposedly under county protection who were found malnourished and burned, and runaways murdered on the streets.

These investigations expose the consequences of overlooking repeated signs of child abuse. And when the stories appear in the media, they attract negative attention, however briefly. It's one reason that nearly every dependency court in California tightly restricts media access to hearings.

In 1961 the state Legislature directed that dependency courts be presumptively closed, unless an interested party can demonstrate a "direct and legitimate interest" in attending. (See Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 346; and Cal. Rules of Ct. rule 5.530(e).) For the next 50 years, the courts operated mostly in secret.

In November 2011, however, Presiding Judge Michael Nash of the Los Angeles Juvenile Court cited state Supreme Court authority permitting him to exercise judicial discretion in defining "legitimate interest." Several months later, he declared hearings in his courtroom to be presumptively open, though attorneys could still argue that certain proceedings should be closed to protect a child's best interests.

Since then Nash's experiment in Los Angeles has attracted a few critics - and no followers. Opposition from some court-appointed counsel and their clients, groups representing youth in foster care, and unions representing social workers has kept California's other dependency courts presumptively closed. In 2011 Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) introduced a bill to open them, but it died in committee. Last year after a Sacramento Bee reporter found that a two-year-old boy supposedly under court supervision had gone missing for eleven months, the newspaper's editorial board called for more transparency in the county's dependency court. But the media campaign stalled.

In my visit to Stanislaus County dependency courts, I personally encountered the reluctance of court-appointed counsel to permit access to hearings. Following the day's calendar call, Judge Ameral polled the lawyers at my request and none voted to let me attend - even though I had already agreed to local court rules prohibiting disclosure of information about individual matters and clients.

In this branch of family law, starting compensation for appointed counsel is often no more than $50,000. In 2004, for instance, the Judicial Council found that such attorneys got hourly rates of $32.10 to $138; those paid a flat, per-case fee received from $241 to $960 for a year's representation. Average case-loads ranged from 131 to 616 clients per full-time attorney.

Dabney at the Children's Law Center says annual earnings for sole practitioners paid by the case range from the mid $30,000s to more than $100,000. But this business model isn't encouraged - it creates an incentive to take on more cases than a sole practitioner could reasonably handle. And nowadays, Dabney adds, the contract attorneys frequently have to pay their own fees and costs.

The judiciary is under pressure as well. Earlier this year, Judge Nash told the Los Angeles Times that each of the county juvenile court's 20 full-time judges handles roughly 1,350 cases at any given time.

Some critics of the dependency court system believe that its chronic underfunding speaks to an uncomfortable truth: Juvenile courts routinely short-change a particularly vulnerable segment of the population.

"We treat these kids like crap on purpose by knowingly underfunding what we know they need," says Ed Howard of the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego. "And that has only gotten worse." Howard claims that every aspect of the state's dependency courts - from social service investigations and court hearings to foster care placements - fails to deliver.

Asked why this pattern continues, he says, "Because the kids can't vote ... and because the awful consequences happen in secret. You can get straight-up cynical about power equaling results."

Why, then, does Dabney keep working in this system, I wonder. Why does she keep doing it? Her answer: Because of those few magic moments when she can see a kid's life transformed. Getting an abused child into a stable environment, Dabney says, means they get to "go to the prom, take a dance class or music class. It can set a trajectory for their childhood."

For Dabney, this emotional component to the job is central. "When we are able to help children frame their circumstances in a way that gives them hope for a brighter future," she says, "we are able to motivate them to persevere in even the most daunting times."

With California's court resources cut to the bone, oftentimes this is all that keeps child advocacy lawyers on the job.

Dabney has spent the morning dealing with one case after another involving violence, neglect, and abuse. "Now it's off to lunch and to prepare for another stack of sad cases tomorrow," she says, adding, "I will surely hug my son very tight tonight, and remember how lucky I am to have him."

Sasha Abramsky is a Sacramento-based freelance writer and author of The American Way of Poverty (Nation Books, 2013).

Reader Comments

Kasey - January 4, 2014
Stanislaus family court allowed my ex and his girlfriend to take my girls. My ex and his girlfriend lived in San Joaquin county. If they would have done a check on my ex and his girlfriend they would have found out that they had a open cps case that put my exes son and his girlfriend 4 boys in foster care and they didn't have a house.. Needless to say my ex wouldn't let me see or talk to my girls and hide them in Manteca. During all this San Joaquin county cps who were called never did a check up on them after they got the boys back. Now my girls and the boys were all removed from my ex and his girlfriend and I am still fighting to get my girls home. If dmv and insurance company's are linked together how come family courts and cps in all counties don't have that kind of communication? I'm just wondering. I have a past and I am not perfect but I had and still have a stable home and my girls were great here and they stated they just want to come back home and 2and 1/2 yrs later I'm still about a yr away from getting them home.

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