It seems there are a few misconceptions out there about the Louisville, KY contempt motion heard this week against the Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet. The Courier-Journal headline reads Lawyers Seeking Higher State Fees
'There are 30 lawyers who represent children in abuse and neglect cases in Jefferson County's 10 Family Court divisions, and 40 more who represent indigent parents.
In the 12 months ending June 30, 3,592 new petitions were filed in abuse, neglect and dependency cases, the most in the 15-year history of Jefferson Family Court, said Jim Birmingham, the court's administrator.
Children in such cases by law must be appointed lawyers; judges may also appoint them for poor parents. The attorneys appear in court one day each week."
If I were a reader outside the system I would calculate, 3592 new cases in a year, 30 lawyers who are in court only one day per week, times $500 per case for the children = $65,866.67 per year per attorney, not bad for a day's work per week per year with little to no overhead!
This is not the case.
First, let's clear up that it is not the appointed attorneys for children who are seeking higher fees. While the statutory cap is $500 per case, for many years when a case is reopened for any number of changed circumstances, the appointed attorneys were paid for their time as if it were a new case. What changed is that the state stopped paying the fees for reopened cases, as I understand it.
While the attorneys are scheduled for one day per week in court, that is not indicative of the time spent on these cases. Further, in many cases the lawyers are paid less than $500.
Many of these attorneys are experienced, talented lawyers, precisely what we would insist upon for the representation of children otherwise without a voice.
As to the time incurred, I cannot say that I have ever done any volume of work in dependency court. What I have seen, however, is the most dedicated of professionals working all ours of the night and weekends. For example, during a custody dispute, dad accused mom's new husband of sexual abuse of one of the children. A Guardian Ad Litem was appointed (we won't discuss here the authority of the court to appoint a GAL in a custody dispute) to represent the children, who was luckily one of the GALs for that division's dependency docket. During a supervised visit, mom discovered bruising and whelps caused by dad's beating one of the children with a belt. She and the supervisor called the GAL, on an evening weekend, as I recall. The GAL raced downtown, took the children to Home Of The Innocents (since mom was still under investigation), calmed them down, eased their fears, talked about how fun Camp HOI was, and worked with the family in the resulting dependency action for many, many months through temporary out-of-county grandparent temporary placement to eventual parent stabilization and reunification.
How many attorneys would do this for $500? I'm still smarting over the $10,000+ in fees the parent I represented couldn't pay. Then, when problems recur and the case is reopened, who would you want appointed to represent those kids? The lawyer they already know, of course. But, if it is a reopening and the lawyer has already been paid $500, the state will say today, "sorry, you have already received your fee."
We need competent attorneys to do this grueling work. It is too bad we have already lost Teresa Kinberger, former head ot the Guardians Ad Litem Association who says the state is basically asking the GALs to work for free. Kudos to John Helmers and the other lawyers who are bringing this to a head. And, Chief Judge Stephen George was wise to make this hearing public even though abuse and dependency cases are confidential. While we don't agree that the Courier-Journal article fully lays out the competing concerns, it is a matter before the court of which the public has a right to be aware.
The Kentucky Law Blog also posted about this story.