In the coming years California will implement significant reforms to its child welfare system. Foster children will migrate from congregate care, relatives will become licensed as foster parents, and mandates will intensify to provide children with stable, healthy families.
Attorneys and social workers to a large extent determine what information is presented to the court. Judges must have confidence that they are receiving complete and accurate information in order to make well-informed decisions.
Both state rules and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges’ Key Principles for Permanency Planning mandate that Juvenile Court Judges are responsible for ensuring that all parties in Dependency court are vigorously represented by well-trained, culturally responsive, and adequately compensated attorneys.
Reasonable compensation is essential for high quality representation.
We call upon those who work in our state Capitol to address a critical need.
The court appointed dependency counsel program is currently funded at only 56 percent capacity. Counties funded below this percentage struggle with high caseloads, lack of experienced and trained attorneys, and an inability to provide adequate and effective legal representation.
Counties that have been able to operate above this percentage have invested in effective programs and have experienced better outcomes for abused and neglected children.
Due to the chronic underfunding from the state, the Judicial Council made the difficult decision three years ago to redistribute funding for all 58 California counties. This has meant that some counties have had to close programs and lay off key personnel. More cuts are slated for this next year.
An additional $88 million is needed to bring the court-appointed counsel program to its full operating capacity. The Judicial Council, however, is only asking the legislature and governor to fund an additional $22 million for next year.
During the past two years, both houses have voted to fund the program at or above this level, only to see their votes left on the cutting room floor for two years in a row at the 11th hour. This is regrettable.
The critical role played by court-appointed counsel has been undervalued and under appreciated. These advocates are a voice for our most vulnerable children and families. We call upon Sacramento to support the vitally needed funding for these advocacy programs.