Friday, December 22, 2006

No requirement to provide lawyers for parents who live in poverty

Child custody cases criticized
Women say state system is unfair
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, Nov. 17, 2006, pg. A1.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Benita Hollie said she never dreamed she would need a lawyer at her first court hearing where the state was seeking temporary custody of her two children.

So she went to court alone and was shocked when the judge ruled against her.

"That's where it started, " said Hollie, a Lexington woman who said she is still fighting to get her children three years later. She lost them after she was injured in a 2003 car accident.

"That was my downfall."

Hollie was among six women who testified before a state task force yesterday about problems with the child welfare system.

They and others who spoke yesterday said:
--Social workers investigating abuse and neglect are too quick to put children in foster care and overlook relatives who want to care for them.

--Social workers don't always follow procedures and they and the court place unrealistic demands on poor families.

--State workers don't always follow state policies and sometimes fail to properly document decisions and recommendations.

--Legal representation for parents often is poor, and the law doesn't even require a judge to appoint a lawyer for poor parents at the initial hearing on whether to temporarily remove children from the home.

Lawyer John Hamlet, who practices in family court in Louisville, said that's one gap that needs to be plugged. Though Jefferson County's judges have a policy of trying to appoint lawyers in such cases, the law doesn't require it and the practice isn't uniform throughout the state, he said.

Parents with no lawyer face a prosecutor, a social worker and a judge — as well as lawyers who may have been appointed for the children. That adversely affects those least able to defend themselves, he said.

"These cases hit the poor, the poorly educated, the indigent and minorities, " he said.

State officials and others on the Blue Ribbon Panel on Adoption listened yesterday and said they will consider all comments in formulating proposed changes in policy and state law.

"This is a good opportunity to look at the system, " said Tom Emberton Jr., commissioner of social services.

Though Emberton said state confidentiality laws prevent him from addressing issues in specific cases raised yesterday by some parents, "We certainly want to hear their recommendations. "

The task force is accepting public comment on the issue.
Send comments to the Legislative Research Commission, Frankfort, Ky., 40601.

The panel was created earlier this year by Mark Birdwhistell, secretary of health and family services, after allegations of abuses in the child welfare system —including claims the state is too quick to ask judges to remove children from homes and place them for adoption.

Mary Henderson, of Lexington, representing a group called Women in Transition — mostly mothers who are seeking improvements in child welfare — said she almost lost her four children to adoption through overzealous social workers and state officials who didn't follow procedures.

Her children are back home now, Henderson said, but it took diligent work by her lawyer and a favorable ruling by the judge in her case. She said the entire system needs more oversight.

"We see a lack of accountability, " she said.

Robin Cornette, Henderson's lawyer, said the state also needs to examine how it pays court-appointed lawyers in such cases. It now pays a flat fee of $500 for a lawyer appointed to represent a parent — even in a complicated case where the state is seeking to terminate a parent's rights, she said.

"I have done termination cases that literally took hundreds of hours for a flat, $500 fee," she said.

Several mothers who testified said the child welfare system sometimes sets impossible goals for parents accused of abuse and neglect — such as working, attending counseling, getting treatment for substance abuse and other requirements.

The demands often overwhelm poor parents who may lack transportation or the ability to juggle all the requirements at once, they said.

"We are asking them to climb Mount Everest," Henderson said.

Hollie said yesterday that she is trying to meet the state's demands to regain custody of her two children. But Hollie, who wept as she spoke, said it's discouraging.

"I'm fighting for them but there's really no hope," she said.


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