Landscape Begins to Shift for Calif. Dependency Attorneys

California advocates and legislators are gearing up to push for a second budget increase to pay court-appointed attorneys representing children in foster care across the state.

At the same time, the Judicial Council of California is debating whether to revise the methodology used to determine how much counties are awarded for juvenile dependency counsel, and how many cases each attorney should be given.

In 2015, Governor Jerry Brown approved an increase of $11 million to be distributed according to each county’s needs, bringing the total funding available annually for dependency counsel to $114.7 million.

The $11 million windfall has been disbursed and, in the case of Children’s Law Center of California, additional staff members have been hired, pushing caseloads down.

“We’ve hired about 30 people in various positions, and we’ve definitely seen the effects in terms of caseloads,” said Leslie Heimov, executive director of Children’s Law Center of California (CLC). “Now we’re at an average of 250, and with the opening of the non-minor dependency court in April it should go down to 220.”

In 2015, CLC’s attorneys were juggling up to 325 cases each.

“It’s a huge difference, but it’s still not enough,” Heimov said.

CLC plans to request an increase of $22 million for California’s juvenile dependency counsel in the governor’s 2016-17 budget.

The Judicial Council of California’s recommended maximum caseload per attorney is currently set at 188 cases, assuming the attorney has the support of a part-time investigator. But the Judicial Council may recommend lowering the maximum since many jurisdictions may not have support staff available.

“The subcommittee determined that the current workload model is based on data on attorney workload from 2002 and that many of its assumptions are outdated and not supported by current data,” reads a Feb. 10 draft report from the Judicial Council’s trial court budget advisory committee.

Under the Judicial Council’s proposed new recommendation, the maximum caseload would be lowered to 141 if the attorney does not have support staff. The recommended optimal case limit would remain unchanged at 77 cases per attorney.

The Judicial Council is expected to come to decision regarding the revised methodology during its next meeting on April 15, a few days shy of one year after council members agreed to try to establish a more equitable way of distributing funds among the courts.

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