For a fourth year, Arizona counties will submit a legislative policy statement urging state legislators to help pay for indigent council in juvenile dependency cases.
Costs are mounting, according to the proposal. There were 203 such cases as of 2017, requiring the expense of providing defense attorneys for all parties involved. State law requires that in any case in which a child is separated from his or her parents, the county must pay for the child’s legal defense, as well as that of any of the child’s family members who are called upon to testify; and deemed indigent. Last year, those expenses amounted to more than $1.55 million from Mohave County’s budget.
“The county is requesting an allocation of state resources to counties that are required to provide indigent council,” said Blake Schritter, the director of Mohave County Indigent Defense Services. “The Public Defender’s Office can accept some of these cases, but when a child is removed from his or her home by DCS, everyone gets an attorney. The Mohave County Public Defender’s Office can only represent one … there’s always a need to hire outside defense council due to the sheer number of parties involved in cases like this.”
According to Schritter, the increase in child dependency investigations stems from a 2014 executive mandate by former Gov. Jan Brewer.
Four years ago, Arizona’s Child Protective Services was in disrepair. With a backlog of more than 13,000 inactive cases, Brewer saw a need to overhaul the agency. She disbanded the former CPS and created the state’s new Department of Child Safety, with a budget increased by $60 million. Among the department’s first mandates was the reopening of thousands of child welfare cases.
As a result, almost 6,600 cases were investigated and closed as of 2015, suspects were arrested and children were removed from parents’ custody. With the resulting influx of criminal investigations and cases, however, came the cost of trying those cases – a cost that was unexpectedly shouldered by counties throughout Arizona.
“The Mohave County Board of Supervisors has always supported each legislative proposal made for the past four or five years so the statute could be modified,” Schritter said. “The governor gave a ton of financial resources to DCS to go and investigate thousands of these cases, but there was no funding provided to the counties that would be trying these cases.”
The legislative proposal suggests allocating financial assistance to counties in proportion to what they incur on the state’s behalf for providing mandatory defense services in child welfare cases. In Mohave County, the cost of attorneys for such cases reached more than $638,200 in 2017. Investigations cost the county $176,762, and secretarial and contract services amounted to about $184,600 in 2017.
“While the safety of Arizona’s children is paramount, the increase in dependency filings has proven to be a challenge for counties on multiple fronts,” according to the legislative proposal. “Providing financial assistance for mandated legal defense may be unpopular; however, it is far more popular than an unbalanced budget for increased taxes to offset the counties incurred expenses as a result of these state-initiated proceedings.”
It’s a complaint made by Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson for the past several years.
“It seems like everyone and their brother gets a free attorney now,” Johnson said. “The kids, parents, grandparents … it’s not inconceivable to have four or six attorneys sitting on a juvenile case.”
There are those who need assistance in obtaining representation, according to Johnson, but there are others who are capable of providing their own attorneys’ costs.
“We don’t want someone to not have fair representation,” Johnson said. “Obviously, people deserve to be represented. In the real world, families should provide it. We get a lot of families where they can’t afford it, but we also have a lot who are getting it for free because they can. It gets costly for taxpayers. We’re looking at the state to carry more of the burden … not every county can afford it. And if the state requires it, the state needs to help pick up the cost.”
The legislative policy statement will be presented Oct. 3-5 at the 14th Annual County Supervisors Association Summit in Yuma County.