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County’s grant rejection generates criticism

Monroe County’s decision to decline a $2.6 million grant to provide a multi-disciplinary approach in child neglect cases has generated a substantial amount of attention from experts outside the Rochester area.

The Jan. 22 article in The Daily Record about the county’s decision to decline the money prompted the leader of the Alexandria, Va.,-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform to write a lengthy blog post criticizing the county’s decision.

Michele Cortese, executive director of the Center for Family Representation (CFR), the New York City agency serving as the model for the initiative the grant money would have funded in Monroe County, wrote a commentary for The Daily Record also critical of the county’s decision.

And a group of legal experts, including law professors from New York University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, expressed their dismay over the county’s decision in a letter to the editor.

Meanwhile, Public Defender Tim Donaher and Conflict Defender Mark Funk declined to comment, as did Monroe County Bar Association President Jill Cicero and Bar Association Executive Director Kevin Ryan.

And Cynthia W. Kaleh, Democrat minority leader on the Monroe County Legislature, who was unaware of the decision to refuse the grant money until it was reported by The Daily Record, is waiting on more information from county officials before taking a firm stand on the issue.

“It most definitely caught us by surprise,” she said.

According to county spokesman Jesse Sleezer, the state money would have funded a program that “would have injected lawyers into cases of abuse and neglect much earlier, potentially intimidating child victims and limiting access by CPS workers who would otherwise assess and monitor the child’s safety.”

But all Monroe County Family Court judges supported the grant application and Family Court Judge Joan Kohout said the grant would have helped poor families “so that they are in the same position as more financially well-off families.”

The grant from the state Office of Indigent Legal Services would have paid for attorneys to represent indigent parents much earlier in Family Court cases.

ILS sought to establish a “demonstration project” outside of New York City to provide legal representation and other services to parents in Article 10 child neglect proceedings and Article 10 termination of parental rights cases.

In addition to hiring four new attorneys in the Public Defender’s Office, the funding would pay for four new social workers.

The program would have used a “client-centered, holistic, and multidisciplinary model of representation that addresses both the legal and social services issues inherent in state intervention cases,” according to ILS.

The effort, modeled after New York City’s Center for Family Representation Inc., would have used a team approach with a lawyer and social worker helping the parents navigate the child welfare and court systems.

In addition, a parent advocate — someone who has already successfully navigated the child welfare system — would provide the parent with emotional support, accompany the parent to meetings, and offer encouragement and motivation to stay engaged.

Kaleh said the Democrats have sent a letter to County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo asking for more specific information about why the grant was rejected.

Kaleh said it’s “troubling” that the grant was declined despite the support of all the Family Court judges.

“There’s a lot of legal minds behind those support letters,” Kaleh said. “They see something different than the county does. It’s not just the Democratic caucus seeing something different.”

In her commentary printed in The Daily Record, Cortese wrote that CFR, the model for the program that would have been implemented in Monroe County, has a solid record of success over the past 15 years.

“Over half of CFR’s clients’ children never enter foster care, and of those that do, their lengths of stay in care are far shorter than they were before CFR, and they rarely re-enter care,” she wrote.

The program saved $37 million in foster care costs and “saved hundreds of children from the devastating impact of being taken from their families, schools, friends and communities when that was not necessary,” she wrote.

In another letter to The Daily Record that was critical of the county’s decision to decline the grant, Cortese joined with: Kara R. Finck, professor and director of the Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Law School; Martin Guggenheim and Chris Gottlieb, professors and co-directors of Family Defense Clinic at New York University Law School; Emma Ketteringham, managing attorney of Family Defense Practice for The Bronx Defenders; and Lauren Shapiro, director of family defense practice at Brooklyn Defenders.

“Holistic lawyers and social workers don’t intimidate child witnesses, but work collaboratively with parents to strengthen and stabilize their families. They help inform the child welfare investigative process, not impede it,” they wrote.

And Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Alexandria, Va., called the county’s decision to turn down the funding “indefensible.”

In a blog post at nccprblog.org, Wexler wrote: “The official reasons offered up by the county are pathetic excuses, an attempt to conjure up false images of vicious technicality-wielding lawyers scaring innocent children and hiding the crimes of child abusers.”

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