Plucked from their abusive homes, Sacramento County's most vulnerable children are thrust into an overloaded legal system that has neither the time nor the resources to protect them, a federal lawsuit charges.
The juvenile dependency court and the lawyers who represent abused and neglected children are so overloaded with cases that youngsters routinely are robbed of their constitutional and statutory rights to a fair hearing and "adequate and effective" legal representation, the suit argues.
Decisions that could profoundly affect the lives of these youngsters often are made in minutes by lawyers and judicial officers who are suffocating under "crushing caseloads," according to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on Thursday by the Children's Advocacy Institute, based at the University of San Diego School of Law.
"This is a question of making sure that these kids get adequate representation in what are perhaps the most important legal proceedings of their lives," said Edward Howard of Sacramento, senior counsel for the advocacy institute. "When you sweep into a family and take kids away, you have a grave responsibility to take care of them."
Attorneys are asking the federal court to certify the lawsuit, which names four youngsters as plaintiffs, as a class action on behalf of thousands of children who end up in Sacramento County dependency court each year. In a highly unusual move, the suit asks the federal court to intervene at the state level and force increased funding and lower caseloads for dependency court and its attorneys.
Dependency courts across the state are overcrowded, Howard said, but Sacramento County's system is in crisis.
The suit names as defendants the chief justice of the California Supreme Court, Ronald M. George, who chairs the agency that oversees the state courts; William C. Vickrey, administrative director of the Administrative Office of the Courts; and James M. Mize, presiding judge of Sacramento Superior Court.
George and Vickrey control the purse strings and allocation of resources for the state's judicial system, and Mize plays a similar role at the local level, the suit says.
Mize declined to talk about the lawsuit Thursday, as did George and Vickrey.
However, in a prepared statement issued in response to a Bee inquiry, the Judicial Council said it "has a long-standing commitment to children in California's juvenile dependency system. In 2008, the Judicial Council submitted a report to the Legislature outlining an additional funding need of over $50 million to implement attorney caseload standards. To date, no funding has been allocated. ... It will require a sustained effort by all branches of government ... to achieve the council's caseload goals."
Court-appointed attorneys and court referees are charged with protecting the safety and well-being of children whose parents or guardians pose a threat or fail to properly care for them.
In Sacramento County's dependency court, five judicial referees are responsible for about 5,100 active cases, the suit says, and decisions about such critical issues as parental contact and living arrangements often are made in minutes. Court-appointed lawyers who represent these children juggle as many as 395 cases at once and typically cannot interview their clients in depth, assess their state of mind or talk to witnesses, the suit alleges.
The workload for attorneys is more than double the standard of 188 cases set by the state Judicial Council, and nearly four times that recommended by the National Association of Counsel for Children.
As a result, the suit says, "lawyers rarely meet with their child clients in their foster care placements, rely on brief telephone contacts or courtroom exchanges to communicate, have no time to conduct complete case investigations, virtually never pursue appeals and are forced to rely on overworked county social workers" to assess their situations.
The lack of appeals means "thousands of children have been forced to remain in placements or adhere to visitation plans simply because there was no attorney available to take the next legal step."
Call The Bee's Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082.