LOS ANGELES— The American Civil Liberties Union of California today released a report that concludes California is violating the Due Process Clause of the federal and state constitutions, as well as federal and state law, because chronic underfunding results in too few attorneys to represent indigent children and parents in dependency court proceedings.
In 15 counties across California, attorneys appointed by the courts to represent children alleged to be the victims of abuse and neglect, and their parents, are carrying twice the maximum caseload standard of 188—making it impossible for them to provide effective representation to children and families, according to the report, “System on the Brink.”
The problem is particularly dire in Los Angeles County, which handles 40 percent of the state’s dependency cases and where individual attorneys carry an average of 328 cases. In Riverside County, an individual attorney caseloads average 461 clients; in Ventura County, attorneys carry an average of 500 cases.
“The California dependency courts are in crisis,” said Victor Leung, staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. “The woeful underfunding of dependency counsel has forced attorneys to carry unmanageable caseloads that put children and families at undue risk.”
The state budget for dependency courts has remained flat at an estimated $103.7 million a year since 2009. Meanwhile, the number of cases has continued to soar, along with operations costs. As a result, dependency attorneys have been required to represent even more clients with no additional resources—causing them to cut services, forgo necessary investigation, and choose between competing clients’ needs.
In one case study, the report quotes Julie McCormick, a staff attorney at Children’s Law Center who represents more than 300 clients, as saying “I don’t believe I can provide my clients with the representation they deserve.” She adds that when her young clients come to court, she often only has five to ten minutes to spend with each of them.
Because dependency courts are empowered to make decisions that have enormous implications for families—including ordering the removal of children from their homes and terminating parents’ rights—federal and state law requires robust protections in dependency courts proceedings, including the right to court-appointed counsel.
The new ACLU report finds that California’s failure to provide sufficient funding to ensure that dependency counsel can provide “competent” and “adequate” representation to their clients puts the state in violation of the Due Process Clause of the federal and state constitution, as well as provisions of federal and state laws.
“California must live up to its legal obligations and provide sufficient funding to ensure that every child and parent receives adequate representation in dependency proceedings,” said Michael Kaufman, staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California.
The report calls on California to immediately increase funding for dependency counsel in order to protect children and parents and fulfill its legal obligations to ensure that they receive adequate representation in dependency proceedings.
California’s caseload maximum of 188, the report adds, is already well in excess of the limit of 100 recommended by the American Bar Association, and the maximum set by other states, such as Massachusetts, where an individual attorney manages a maximum of 75 cases, and Washington, where the limit is 80.
The ACLU of California is a collaboration of the three ACLU affiliates in the state—the ACLU of Northern California, the ACLU of Southern California, and the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties.