Monday, May 31, 2010

Lawyers in juvenile court to be laid off

Up to three dozen county defense lawyers who work in the child welfare courts will be laid off in the wake of a decision by the state to contract the work out to a newly formed nonprofit group.

The decision by the Administrative Office of the Courts ends nearly two decades in which the Public Defender’s Office handled the work of representing children who have been neglected and abused, and their parents.

The AOC is the state agency that administers the operation of the courts, and funds the Juvenile Dependency Court system around the state. This year, the AOC sought bids on handling the estimated 4,000 to 5,000 cases per year in San Diego County.

Selecting an outside nonprofit to do the work may be a desire by the court system, struggling under budget cutbacks, to provide services for less money. The bids and contract are not yet public, so how much money is being saved, if any, can’t be determined.

While the Public Defender’s Office submitted a bid, the AOC announced May 21 that it intended to award the contract to the Dependency Legal Group of San Diego. That organization is headed by Candi Mayes, a former public defender who worked for the county in the dependency courts for eight years.

Mayes resigned in March to set up the nonprofit and bid on the contract, she said.

News of the AOC decision rippled through the Public Defender’s Office last week. About five years ago, the contract also was put out to bid by the AOC, but at that time the Public Defender’s Office was the winner, leading some to think that the office would prevail again this year.

The budget for staffing the dependency courts is $9.5 million this year, funded through the state. Mayes declined to say what her bid was, and the final contract amount is still to be negotiated.

Mayes said she hoped many of the lawyers losing their jobs would apply to Dependency Legal Group once the contract is finalized, but she could not say how many she would be hiring. Without the contract, the county payroll will be reduced by 36 positions. In a memo to the Civil Service Commission last week, Public Defender Henry Coker wrote it was not possible to simply shift the dependency attorneys over to criminal cases, and supplant younger attorneys in a practice called “bumping” that is allowed under civil service rules.

In an interview last week, Coker declined to comment extensively on the impacts of losing the contract, saying that it was a personnel matter that could not be discussed.

He said that the office’s efforts will be focused on making as smooth a transition as possible. The new contract goes into effect July 1.

Why the AOC chose a private group instead of the public law office is not yet known. Philip Carrizosa, a spokesman for the agency, said because the final contract negotiations are not yet complete, he could not comment on details of the bid.

Coker said he also did not know why the office’s bid failed this time around.

Several counties around the state contract with private lawyers to handle dependency cases. Robert Fellmeth, a children’s advocate and professor at the University of San Diego School of Law, endorsed the idea.

Fellmeth said while the lawyers who work for the county now are excellent, they struggle with caseloads that often exceed more than 200 per attorney. The state court system has set a caseload maximum of 188 for dependency lawyers.

Fellmeth said having children represented by a group that is independent of the county government could be beneficial. When the county’s child welfare system removes a child from the care of their parents, lawyers from the county counsel’s office represent social workers in court. That means both sides, while acting independently, are employed by the same government under the current arrangement.

By Greg Moran, Union-tribune Staff Writer

Source: The San Diego Union-Tribune


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