Monroe County officials have turned down a $2.6 million state grant because the funding would have paid for attorneys to represent indigent parents much earlier in Family Court cases, which they claim would interfere with child neglect and abuse investigations.
Monroe County spokesman Jesse Sleezer said in a written statement that the initiatives funded by the grant “could have unintended consequences on the county’s efforts to keep children and families safe.”
“The program itself, although well-intentioned, 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,” he said in the statement.
“The attorneys involved in this pilot program would serve only one client — the parent accused of abuse — and would not have any professional responsibility to serve the best interests of the abused child,” Sleezer said.
And Sleezer noted that County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo has announced plans to hire 30 new Child Protective Services caseworkers.
Family Court Judge Joan Kohout said county officials “missed the point.”
“This is to help poor families so that they are in the same position as more financially well-off families,” she said.
“What they have neglected to consider is that parents who have financial ability to hire their own attorneys do that. This program would provide the same right and the same access to legal advice to poor parents,” Kohout said.
The Monroe County Public Defender’s Office applied for the grant in response to request for proposals (RFP) issued in March by the state Office of Indigent Legal Services.
ILS sought to establish “a model Parental Representation Office” 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 “demonstration project” envisioned would use 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 the RFP.
The effort, modeled after on 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.
Parents are not required to be to be advised of their right to a court-appointed if they can’t afford one, until their first court appearance. But that could be weeks after having their children taken into state custody.
Having a lawyer earlier could prevent unwarranted separation of children from their families, according to ILS officials, because child welfare agencies can’t forcibly remove a child from their parents without a court order, unless there is an “imminent danger to the child’s life or health.”
“Unfortunately, experience has shown that agencies too often wield their emergency removal power in situations where such drastic state action is unnecessary, and without first attempting to address the issues that brought the family to the agency’s attention,” according to the RFP.
In Monroe County, the grant would have allowed attorneys to work on 50 potential child abuse and neglect cases before a Family Court petition is filed. ILS envisioned a cooperative approach where the attorney and social worker work with CPS to develop a plan for support services that would avoid removing a child from their parents.
The grant also would have funded 175 post-petition cases.
Family Court Judge Dandrea L. Ruhlmann said she and her colleagues “were very supportive of the grant.”
“They asked me to write a letter in support of a grant and I did so,” she said.
Kohout called the initiative “a great idea.”
“I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t accept this grant, frankly. It’s a lot of money, and the money that they could get from the grant potentially would free up money that could be used for other purposes in the Public Defender’s office, perhaps,” she said.
“There would be great benefit in avoiding dragging people into court and stigmatizing them by giving them that help up front,” Kohout said.
Public Defender Tim Donaher declined to comment.