Dependency attorneys grappling with funding cuts

WATSONVILLE — Every day in Santa Cruz County Superior Court Family Law Division in Watsonville, a small team of attorneys who specialize in family law advocate for children and their parents as they move through the often impersonal machinations of the legal system.

When children are removed from their homes because of allegations of abuse or neglect, both parents and their children need representation.

That’s where Santa Cruz’s dependency counsel comes in. This team of attorneys focuses solely on cases involving children and their parents.

Unlike adult court, which often provides publicly funded attorneys, those on the minors’ council are private contractors. They are funded through the Judicial Council of California, which is the rule-making arm of the California court system.

According to Watsonville attorney Allison Cruz, that state agency has slashed funding for the attorneys several years in a row, leaving them with less for carrying the same workload. Cruz said the cuts amount to 40 percent over four years, with another one coming in December.

“This is the fifth year in a row that we’ve gotten pay cuts,” she said. “The frustrating thing is that this is a statewide problem.”

Cruz, who has been practicing since 1991, stressed that the funding gap does not in any way diminish the time the attorneys put into their cases.

Instead, she works evenings and weekends to allow her to take on extra work to help fill the gap.

“Rest assured the parents and their kids are still getting quality representation,” she said. “We are never going to let our jobs falter because of a lack of money. That will never happen. We will just keep doing more and more and more.”


A different model

Cruz said that dependency cases are markedly different from adult court, where judges grind through dozens upon dozens of cases every day.

By contrast, juvenile court is based on a “collaborative” model in which the district attorney’s office, the advocates and the judge work through about eight cases every day, spending extra time to assure the decisions made are in the best interests of the children, she said. 

“The judge takes the time to communicate with the families, make sure they understand what’s going on,” Cruz said. “Most of the time there are positive outcomes.”


Funding troubles

According to Judicial Council spokesperson Merrill Balassone, dependency counsels statewide require nearly $207 million annually, but receives only about $136.7 million.

According to a June 27 report by the Judicial Council, Santa Cruz County requires about $824,000 annually for its dependency counsel, but received a little less than $544,197 this year.

Balassone said that funding dependency counsels was once a county responsibility, which led to “wide funding disparities” in funding from county to county.

Once it shifted to a statewide system, the Judicial Council in 2015 began to reallocate the funding based on caseloads using both data from the court and child welfare services, Balassone said.

The Judicial Council at its May 18-19 meeting agreed to temporarily shift more than $1 million in 2018 and 2019 from the larger courts to the small ones.

According to the Judicial Council, small courts — defined as the 30 courts in California counties with the lowest child welfare caseloads — often have less access to qualified court-appointed attorneys, since they are located in remote and less-populated counties and must pay the attorneys more for their time and travel.

“Trying to divide up this paltry amount is substandard and insufficient for the needs that we have,” said Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who serves as chair of the council. “Some of the first words out of our mouths in budget meetings with legislators is ‘dependency funding’ and that the amount we receive is not nearly enough.”

Another difficulty is that attorneys who work for the county are paid more than their counterparts on the dependency counsel, Cruz said.

A similar imbalance exists between public defenders’ offices and the district attorneys’ offices, she said.


Heavy workloads

Once accusations of abuse or neglect come to light, Cruz and her colleagues conduct independent investigations that include interviewing therapists, neighbors, relatives, social workers, hospital staff and anyone else deemed relevant to the case, Cruz said.

Cruz currently has about 110 cases, which she said is average for her colleagues, but has had as many as 150.

“I do love it,” she said. “It’s rewarding. It just makes me feel like I’m doing something positive, and helping people.

“If kids get reunified with their families, that’s the best. If kids get adopted by someone who loves them, that’s also fabulous.”


Taking action

The best thing for anyone concerned about the issue would be to contact state lawmakers, Cruz said.

“It would be great if people could support us and let their legislators know that this is an important thing for kids and parents to have adequately funded representation,” she said.


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