In the crowded halls of Los Angeles County children’s court, attorney Rosa Figueroa searches through family after family before finding her new client and kneeling so she can meet him at eye level.
Wearing an oversized bomber jacket, the 9-year-old boy shyly acknowledges her as they start to prepare for a hearing that could have his father barred from further contact.
It’s one of many cases Figueroa juggles as a member of the nation’s largest public interest law firm, which represents abused and neglected children.
But as caseloads grow without money to hire more attorneys, the system appears to be reaching a breaking point, and the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles could stop taking on new clients.
The stakes go beyond a funding battle to the way children in California’s dependency courts are represented.
The guarantee that each child must be represented by an independent lawyer was considered a major reform when it was established in the mid-1990s after the high-profile death of 2-year-old Lance Helms.
A judge had given Helms’ father custody of the boy despite a history of domestic violence and over the protests of social workers. Helms was found beaten to death, and his father was eventually convicted of killing him.
The system has become a model for providing representation to children in dependency court. But the caseload for the law center’s attorneys has been gradually rising over the last decade, and rose 10% in the last few years.
The caseload of Los Angeles dependency court attorneys averages 300 children, significantly higher than the California Judicial Council recommends. The council said these lawyers should ideally handle 77 clients at a time unless they are assisted by at least a part-time investigator; but even in that case, they should manage no more than 188.
Law center leaders say their ability to properly represent all clients is eroding. There is less time for lawyers to earn their clients’ trust, interview key witnesses and keep up with legal briefs, they say.
Law center Executive Director Leslie Starr Heimov refused for three months this year to sign a new contract with the courts. Now, the firm has warned judges that it has hired outside legal counsel to help it refuse new cases if more money cannot be found.
Court leaders said they don’t yet know how they would respond to such an action. But if children entering the system go unrepresented, it could leave them vulnerable, they said.
“We fought some real significant legal battles in the ‘90s to establish the notion that kids were entitled to independent representation,” said Michael Nash, the presiding judge of Los Angeles County’s Juvenile Court. The children “are the most important party in the system. Period.”
The firm said the average payment from the state for each client has fallen from $646 to $605 over the last five years. Across California, the average caseload ranges from 250 to 300 children. In 15 counties, the average exceeds 400, according to the law center.
California law does not regulate how many clients an attorney in dependency court can handle. But in Georgia, a federal court ruled in 2006 that the state had violated its children’s constitutional rights by making lawyers carry caseloads of up to 500 clients. The judge ordered that those caseloads be slashed to 90.
Heimov said that for the law center to even cut caseloads to 188, its $18-million budget would need to grow to $29 million a year — more than 50%.
Although the nonprofit firm is a charity that can accept private donations, almost all of its money comes from the state court system. Earlier this year, legislators tried to provide $33 million more for dependency lawyers across the state, but the effort was dropped during eleventh-hour budget negotiations
Advocates contend that Gov. Jerry Brown wanted it killed.
“The governor was being himself by refusing to earmark the dollars,” Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) said.
H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the governor’s department of finance, declined to say whether the administration played a role in blocking the money.
After the budget fight, Heimov and her supporters asked the Judicial Council to increase payments from the state courts, but they were rebuffed again.
“No one is satisfied with the current situation, but over $1 billion have been taken out of the courts in recent years,” said Curt Child, the Judicial Council’s chief financial officer.
Figueroa has been a lawyer for 10 years and earns $66,000 a year. Cost-of-living pay raises have been sporadic, and some lawyers hope extra funding would provide modest salary boosts.
The day Figueroa met her new 9-year-old client, there was little time for consultation.
The boy’s parents were locked in a custody fight, and his father was accused of verbally and physical abusing him. After threatening to injure himself, the boy had been involuntarily moved to a psychiatric center.
There was also worry that his parents’ dispute might be infecting the case with false allegations. Figueroa’s job was to find the truth and propose a solution to the judge.
A 2008 study found that hearings to decide whether a child should be taken from parents typically lasted no more than 15 minutes, which means their lawyers must be fully prepared. But lawyers say they must often spend valuable time filling in gaps left by overloaded social workers.
At one point, Figueroa walked with her young client to a small private room and sat down.
“Help me understand what’s going on in your life,” she said. The boy crumpled in shame as he described the abuse he said he suffered from his father.
“I’ll do my best to help,” she said.