Hall County will add $200,000 to the fiscal year 2018 budget for indigent defense to help cover the growing costs of children’s attorneys in Juvenile Court, an unfunded mandate created by the 2014 juvenile code change.
Another $300,000 was added in a fiscal year 2017 budget amendment in January for these attorneys, who are required by law to represent children believed to be abused and neglected.
“That policy is considered best practice around the country, and most states that have progressed as Juvenile Court systems do require that if there is a conflict among the children ... then they should each be entitled to a lawyer, because they are parties to the case,” Hall County Chief Assistant Public Defender Nicki Vaughan said.
In 2014, the cost of legal counsel in these circumstances was $223,000, according to county officials. Updated financial numbers were not provided.
Each of the three Juvenile Court judges have two primary attorneys, though each is shared if conflicts arise.
Chief Judge Lindsay Burton has dependency court every Monday, with Judges Alison Toller and Joe Diaz trading every Monday for the bench seat.
Burton said the court has tried to create the “most efficient system possible” to keep costs and waiting times down.
In the county’s notice of property tax increases, the “state mandated indigent defense requirements for Juvenile Court hearings” is cited as one of the necessary reasons for the increase.
Stakeholders attributed this to the ongoing foster care crisis in Hall County, where there are too few foster homes to handle the increased number of children requiring care.
There are more than 250 kids from Hall County in foster care, a number continuing to increase since 2013. Few of these children stay inside the local judicial circuit, and often are relocated to South Georgia.
Burton recently told a grand jury of a child attorney’s journey to see his client.
“That child attorney then gets in his car in Gainesville and drives to Augusta,” she said. “He meets with the foster family. He meets with his client. Maybe he meets with a counselor or somebody from school, and then gets in the car and drives back. That’s an eight-hour bill.”
Ari Mathe, who said she currently has 50 cases with the court, said the in-court rate is $60 per hour and $50 per hour out of court.
Compared to the other law practitioners, Mathe said she is on the low side in terms of caseload.
“More will come through, because some cases are a little more short-lived. I say some, because the majority last a really long time, anywhere from a year to forever apparently,” she said. “Some of the ones I’ve had since 2013 and prior to that time.”
Those longer cases involved Mathe being appointed before the law change, and the children have still not found permanent homes.
Mathe said she has tried to get creative, like using video-chat smartphone applications to talk to some teenage clients. But that process doesn’t work for younger children.
“The younger they are, the more you have to physically see them,” she said. “And we have a real problem of having in-county placements for our children who are in our foster care system.”
Because of scheduling issues with the children or their foster families, Mathe and other attorneys have to move their client visits to nights and weekends. Meeting a child on their home turf is vital, she said.
“I can’t expect a little kid to come and have a conversation with me about their whole life in an office, not and it be productive at all,” Mathe said. “That does create more of an obligation, I think, on the child attorneys for how we have to go about doing our jobs and practicing.”
If these children stayed in the same school system, Burton said, billable hours would decrease.
Another issue is the guardian ad litem requirement, a position often filled by the court-appointed special advocates.
Within the last month, Burton said 88 children are not being served by a CASA. That means the court would be required to pay another attorney to fill this role, which is another set of eyes and ears for the judge to determine the best solution for a child.
The court now has six hearings within a nine-month period, meaning more time for attorneys in and out of court to expedite the time to possibly reuniting families or developing another solution.
“The sheer volume of hearings that we have, I have no doubt have driven the cost up in attorney expenses,” Burton said.
For Mathe, the code has created a “pay me now or pay me later” scenario.
“We’re saving ourselves money later, because perhaps these children now won’t have children that come into foster care, and perhaps these children and maybe their parents, too ... won’t need the services of the public defender or an appointed State Court criminal attorney later.”