If there are constants in the world of the Los Angeles Dependency Court, they are haste and confusion. Reports swirl through the building, hauled around on carts stacked high with papers. Lawyers scramble for translators, rifle through documents, dash in and out of courtrooms.
Much of that is the result of a staggering workload for the lawyers who represent children caught up in this system because their parents have been accused of abusing or neglecting them.
In 2008, the California Judicial Council recommended that lawyers for children in Dependency Court optimally should handle 77 clients at a time and certainly not more than 141. If those lawyers are assisted by a part-time investigator, the council concluded that they could handle a maximum of 188 clients.
In Los Angeles today, these lawyers typically handle the cases of 274 young people at a time, and some have more than 300 clients. These are hardworking, devoted professionals, but they are stretched beyond capacity.
The cases heard in Dependency Court require decisions that have profound ramifications. Guided by the advice of counsel, judges decide whether the children before them should be returned to once-abusive parents, whether they should be sent into foster care or put up for adoption, where they should go to school, what medicines they should take. Imagine meeting a pregnant teenage girl for the first time, and, after 20 minutes of conversation, having to advise a judge on whether that girl should be allowed to live with her boyfriend, be sent to foster care or returned to a home where she may have been neglected. Such decisions have to be made hourly in Dependency Court.
"A lot of times it feels like triaging in an emergency room," said Blaine McPhillips, a lawyer for the Children's Law Center, which represents children in dependency proceedings.
McPhillips and a dozen or so of his colleagues discussed these issues with me over lunch last week. As he described the sense of turmoil and urgency, his colleagues nodded in agreement.
"We're dealing with lives," said Brian Thompson, another lawyer for the center. "If we have more time, we discover more problems…. We need more time."
Lawyers have to delve deeply into all aspects of a child's life to understand the situation. Leslie Heimov, executive director of the center, recalls a case from a few years ago, for example, in which a 14-year-old boy had been prescribed Haldol, a psychotropic drug used to treat schizophrenia. The drug helped control some of his problems but also left him nearly catatonic, "a zombie," as Heimov described him.
One consequence was that his lawyers could barely communicate with him, so they asked a doctor to review the prescription. The doctor concluded that such a powerful medication was harmful and unnecessary and took him off the drug. This allowed the boy to begin functioning again. But the experience has added additional work for attorneys. Now, the center's lawyers routinely review a child's medications.
As that suggests, there are special complexities that these lawyers confront. They are required to advocate for their clients' wishes but also to act in their clients' best interests. Given that the clients are children, it sometimes falls to the lawyers to determine what's best for the child, even if it's not what the child requests.
This is often the case with young children who have been taken from their homes. They often want to return right away and are unable to understand the dangers or difficulties that might accompany reunification. Parents may be homeless or living in a car, for instance, and the child would be safer in foster care. As with other wrenching matters, however, that's a hard conversation to have and one that requires trust on both sides. It's difficult to do well by a 9-year-old who's being introduced to his lawyer for the first time in the hallway of a courthouse.
The problem, of course, is funding, and dependency courts are hardly the only institution in California
desperate for money. What makes these cases particularly compelling, however, is the palpable effect that the shortage of funds has on these suffering children. These are young people who have done nothing wrong and yet are caught up in a system that pulls them from their homes and thrusts them into a bewildering new world. They should at least be able to count on having advocates with the time to help. And yet, for lack of money, they often are denied even that.