(Phoenix, AZ) Note to editors: The following is a guest editorial from Attorney General Terry Goddard.
The Arizona State Legislature understood. And, I’m very thankful. The just-approved 2005 Budget includes $4 million for attorneys needed to protect abused and battered children in court.
Each time Child Protective Services makes the decision to remove a child from abusive or absent parents, an attorney from the Attorney General’s Office is assigned to advocate for the safety of that child in the court. The caseload grows each day. The American Bar Association says an attorney should handle no more than 60 of these types of cases – that is the standard. Currently, attorneys in my office have an average of over 140 cases apiece. One attorney represents more than 180 children. I don’t hold out any hope that we can ever reach the 60 cases per attorney. But, the current numbers are so extreme, the system was clearly breaking down.
Last fall, the State Legislature enacted reforms of Child Protective Services. New CPS caseworkers were added and other changes made. Unfortunately, there was no budget allowance then for the additional attorneys who must represent children in court. The anticipated caseload for fiscal year 2004 was about 2,500 cases. In fact the caseload has ballooned to more than 1,000 cases above that projection. Good attorneys have resigned because of the incredible caseloads demands. In April alone, seven attorneys resigned -- a full 10 percent of our attorneys -- because of the incredible demands. Abused children have been forced to spend more time in foster care, and there is always the nagging fear that a child in peril for their life from neglectful or abusive parents might die before getting relief in court. For the last two months, I have been alerting lawmakers to this looming crisis.
During the 2003 Special Session, the legislature also gave parents the right to a jury trial in severance cases. Lawmakers assumed few if any parents would choose this option. Unfortunately, they were wrong. At the current rate, there will be about 200 jury trials requested this year, up from zero. Jury trials take much longer to prepare and more time in court than hearings before a judge. With all our attorneys already backed up with huge caseloads, there were simply no additional forces to cover the jury trials.
The CPS Reform package adopted in December 2003 made clear that in Arizona, the safety and well being of children should come first. I wholeheartedly agree. So does every one of the incredibly dedicated Child Protective attorneys in the Attorney General’s Office. Now, the Legislature has taken the necessary second step forward to make good on that promise. Now we will have the additional attorneys needed to prepare the petitions, to attend the hearings and to prosecute the trials.
Legislative leadership and the Governor heard my plea for help and responded. The new funding will make a huge difference in taking kids out of hostile environments, keeping them from languishing in foster care and getting them to stable, caring homes where they can laugh and love. That is what every child deserves.
The funding provided this year will address a critical situation. The Legislature’s action and the Governor’s signature will help our state’s most vulnerable children when they need help the most. On their behalf, a heartfelt “thank you.”