Sunday, January 21, 2007

Underpaid court-appointed counsel defending abused and neglected children

Family court attorney fees stand
Judge rules $500 is maximum pay
Wolfson, Andrew. Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan. 16, 2007, pg. B1.

Jefferson County's chief family court judge has ruled that courts have no choice but to enforce a $500 ceiling for payments to attorneys who represent indigent children and parents in abuse and neglect cases; even though the state acknowledges the fee is "woefully insufficient."

While there is "little doubt that quality attorneys" will no longer seek the appointments, Judge Stephen George said, judges cannot approve fees higher than allowed by the General Assembly.

George ruled Thursday in a case brought by six lawyers who claimed the $500 ceiling is unfair when cases are repeatedly returned to the court's docket after the initial disposition, for change of custody motions or other reviews.

The lawyers had filed motions seeking to find the Finance and Administration Cabinet in contempt of court for refusing to pay additional fees. The cabinet said it had no choice but to reject the requests , in part because of the General Assembly's failure last year to budget money for the payments.

George said in his ruling that the state acknowledged the maximum fee is "woefully insufficient" for cases that can stretch on for years. He cited one case that has been pending for 18 years and in which more than 400 pleadings have been filed.

George also noted that a state commission in 1998 found that the legislature should amend the fee system.

Lawyers for children in abuse, neglect and termination of parental rights cases are known as guardians ad litem; those who represent parents are called court-appointed counsel.

John Helmers, one of the lawyers who challenged the fees, said representatives from both specialty areas are expected to meet in the next couple of weeks to decide whether to appeal the ruling or to try to get the legislature to increase the fee.

M. Stephen Pitt, who represented the Finance Cabinet, said George "made the right decision and the only one that's allowed under the law, but he appropriately pointed out statute is in need of amendment by General Assembly."

Mark D. Birdwhistle, secretary of the Cabinet for Families and Children and chairman of a panel that is considering reforms in Kentucky's adoption law, said yesterday that a fee increase is "definitely on the table," according to Vicki Franklin, a cabinet spokeswoman.

Helmers said recent disclosures about abuses of power by state social workers and supervisors in the Hardin County region shows the importance of protecting the rights of children and parents in family court.

In Jefferson County's 10 family court divisions, about 30 lawyers are assigned to represent children and 40 others to represent parents.

George said that new federal and state requirements for reviews of placements have been enacted since the General Assembly set the fee cap and that it isn't fair to lawyers or their clients to require them to do more work for free.

"The importance of work done by GALs and CACs cannot be overstated," George said. "There are very few judicial acts that have as profound effects as the actions made involving the parent-child relationship."


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