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AG’s office seeks millions for attorneys to handle child welfare cases

Money-Child-AbuseThe Arizona Attorney General’s Office is asking for a $2.7 million supplement to the current fiscal year 2015 budget to cover a shortfall and a permanent $4.7 million increase to hire more attorneys to work on child-welfare cases and keep the lawyers they have from fleeing to better paying jobs.

The office warns that the money is needed to maintain legal services to the newly created Department of Child Services.

Rick Bistrow, chief deputy attorney general, said assistant attorneys general in the Protective Services Section are lured to Maricopa County’s four public defender offices, where they represent parents and children in dependency proceedings, by lighter workloads and a school loan reimbursement program.

For instance, eight of the 16 attorneys who do dependency cases for the Maricopa County Office of the Legal Advocate are former assistant attorneys general who worked in the office’s Protective Service Section.

That section, which has about 100 lawyers, had a 28 percent turnover rate from January to August.

“We’re in a crisis mode here,” Bistrow said.

The attorney general is asking for an overall increase of 15 percent, or $10.2 million, in appropriated funds from fiscal-year 2015 to FY16 to cover an assortment of requests, such as hiring more investigators, keeping together a group that fights drug trafficking in southern Arizona, supporting death-penalty litigation, and hiring a water-rights attorney.

Fueling the exodus of child-welfare attorneys is the steady increase in child abuse and neglect cases. For example, the Department of Child Services reports a 34 percent increase in the number of children being removed from their homes from April 1, 2010, to March 31.

Attorney General Tom Horne wrote in a letter to the Governor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Budgeting that his child-welfare attorneys carry an average of 45 more cases each than their counterparts in Maricopa County agencies.

Cari Gerchick, a spokeswoman for Maricopa County, said attorneys in the Office of the Legal Advocate have an “ethical case limit,” a flexible target number for caseloads.

She said an ethical case limit means the supervisor has to make sure the lawyer’s caseload doesn’t exceed his ability to ethically represent the clients.

Bistrow said that every time a position in the county opens several assistant attorneys general from the Protective Services Section will apply.

Horne is asking for an increase of $4.7 million from the general fund to pay for 56 more lawyers for the section.

Horne wrote that the services the office provides to the newly created Department of Child Services, formerly Child Protective Services, are going to suffer without the additional money.

DCS and its predecessor, Child Protective Services, have battled high turnover rates of social workers, and Bistrow said many of the same reasons why social workers burn out apply to attorneys who work on child welfare cases.

“The nature of the work is unpleasant,” Bistrow said.

They work with abused children and the work is laden with emotion because parents are fighting for their children, he said.

Earlier this year, the Legislature split the former CPS from the Department of Economic Security to create DCS as a stand-alone agency that reports to the governor.

The agency’s creation is the latest attempt to fix the way Arizona addresses child abuse and neglect reports.

The old agency was often mired in scandal, the most recent involving 6,595 cases designated as “not investigated,” or NI, by CPS workers attempting to handle the overwhelming number of reports the agency received — an average of 942 a week, according to the governor’s staff.

Bistrow said the split of CPS from DES has caused a $1.2 million shortfall for the Attorney General’s Office.

Horne explained in his letter that the split caused a reduction in funds to cover DCS’ work and his office had to pick up the costs for other legal work besides dependency cases.

The attorney general is asking for a $2.7 million supplement to the fiscal-year 2015 budget and to make it permanent to cover the shortfall and hire 10 new workers to keep doing legal work for DCS without disruption.

 AG Budget Request

Appropriated Funds  

FY15 $66.8 M,  FY16 $77 M

Key increase requests FY16:

  • $2.7 million FY15 supplemental to cover shortfall and to be made permanent in FY16
  • $4.7 million caseload and pay parity for child welfare attorneys
  • $2 million for six new investigators
  • $1.2 million to maintain the Southern Arizona Drug and Criminal Prosecution/Tucson Section

One comment

  1. If DCS spent more time doing actual social services work they woupdate reduce the amount of dependency litigation.

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