When the county takes children away from their parents, it is imperative the rights of the children and the parents are represented so the family can become whole again. The Family Dependency Department of the San Diego Public Defenders Office was designed to do just that. However, as of July 1, 2010, the Public Defender’s office of San Diego County will no longer be looking after the rights of the children, or of the parents who have had their children removed. On May 21, 2010, the Administrative Office of the Courts awarded the contract for Family Dependency services to a new start-up organization, Dependency Legal Group.
The AOC last put the contract up for bid three years ago and at that time, determined the county’s interest could be best served by a county agency. With several years of experience in Family Advocacy, the trained staff of the Public Defenders office submitted a bid this year too, doing their best to come within the cost guidelines the AOC needed. By allowing other agencies to bid on the contract, the AOC had hopes of saving the county money while ensuring proper representation for all parties. In an effort to save money, the needs of the citizens of San Diego are again placed last in line.
Under the current process, once a child is removed from the home, the parents are given notice of a day to appear in court where an attorney trained in child advocacy is assigned to represent them. Their services are offered at a discount rate, well below the $250 an hour a private attorney would charge. If needed, parenting classes, drug treatment and domestic violence classes are offered to the parent in an effort to regain custody of their children. If the parents are not able to care for their children, they can ask for a relative to take the children, they can request foster care for their children or they can place the child up for adoption. The experience of the attorney is key is knowing what programs are available and what steps need to be taken by the parents and other family members so the children can return safely home.
The Dependency Legal Group says they will be ready on July 1, 2010 to hear cases with little interruption to the process. DLG Chief Executive Officer Candi Mayes has experience with family advocacy; as up until March of 2010 she was an employee of the County of San Diego Public Defender’s Office. She is also certified as a Child Welfare Law Specialist. The concern is that the DLG has not stated how many attorneys they will be hiring or even what level of experience the attorneys will have. The details of the contract and the amount of the savings, if any, have not been disclosed at this time. Nor has DLG said what level of support staff they will be using within their organization. With a smaller and less experienced staff than what the county had in place, Dependency Legal Group will have a rough time ahead.
The Public Defender’s Office has some of the best family advocacy attorneys available. Though a private attorney can specialize in Child Welfare Law, the most experienced family advocacy attorneys are long-term employees of San Diego County and are not expected to take on an assignment with the newly formed Dependency Legal Group. With the contract coming up for review again in three more years, experienced attorneys may not want to take a chance on a business that has no track record of success or longevity. When legal expertise is devalued at the cost of service, the risk is that the rights of the parents and children of San Diego will be forgotten.
Children, parents and attorneys are not the only citizens forgotten by the AOC in this new contract. Clerical support staff, investigators and social workers are also affected by the change. The number of San Diego County employees disrupted due to this change goes beyond the three dozen defense attorneys as reported by Sign On San Diego and the San Diego Union Tribune. Record Clerks, Investigators, Legal Assistants, Paralegals and Office Managers are also in jeopardy of losing their jobs. All current Public Defender Dependency staff members are still expects to continue doing their jobs, with business as usual up to the July 1st turn over date. While these staff members prepare for the unemployment line, they are also expected to ease the transition for the new agency.
The decision of the Administrative Office of the Courts to award the contract to the Dependency Legal Group ends years of assistance to the children of San Diego who have been neglected and abused by their parents or other caregivers. To hand over the control of such an important task, and placing it in the hands of an unproved organization, demeans the needs of the most vulnerable public at the cost of a few dollars.
Only time will tell if the AOC decision is the right one. Meanwhile, over sixty-five county employees are in limbo, wondering if they will have a job in July. It may be beneficial to the families and children that their rights are represented by an agency other than the county. It may be beneficial to the AOC to have a new organization, with new ideas at the helm of this all important role. But if the new organization fails, who will be hurt by the AOC’s decision? The attorneys, the investigators, the office support staff, the children and the parents of San Diego County will all be waiting to see.