Child protection is a big-ticket item

March 2, 2009
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In 2007, when administrators in the 17th Circuit Court prepared the 2008 budget, team defense meetings weren’t required and weren’t an expense item in that budget.

But during the court’s fiscal year, those meetings, which focus on protecting the needs of children in cases that come before the court’s family-law division, became mandated by the state and also became an unfunded mandate for the court and Kent County.

“It’s a $6 million line item,” said Jack Roedema, circuit court administrator.

Roedema revealed the cost of those meetings to the court when he appeared before the county’s Finance Committee to request funds that would plug a hole in the court’s budget. Commissioners responded last week by transferring $55,000 from the general operating fund reserve to the court’s budget.

The county’s general fund sent $18.3 million to the court’s $27 million budget in 2008; a spending plan was already up by more than 8 percent from 2007.

Cases involving children are on the rise and are expected to climb even further in the immediate future as the economy worsens and more families are split.

In the family-law division, Roedema said the number of child protective cases rose by 4 percent last year from 2007. In addition, the number of delinquencies cases increased by 9.2 percent and the number of adoption cases jumped by 10.5 percent.

“Really, there is not much you can do,” said Roedema, about estimating how much these cases will cost the court this year and next year. “It depends on how many cases come in.”

The court is required to pay the legal fees on behalf of every child involved. And multiple attorneys can be involved in a single case, as the state requires that each child be represented by a lawyer. Some of these cases, Roedema added, can go on for years.

“If you have four kids in a family, you could have four attorneys. Those attorney bills are going way up. We had about 400 of those (cases) in 2008,” he said.

But last year’s caseload may turn out to be a drop in an ever-growing bucket. Roedema said there could be as many as 3,500 child-protection cases on the court’s docket next year.

“It’s a big-ticket item that is hard to manage. It’s not like office supplies, where you can just not spend it,” he said.

The court currently pays lawyers representing the children $55 an hour. The $55,000 commissioners approved will pay for 1,000 hours of attorneys’ time. The county, though, can change that hourly rate. “You’re seeing counties reduce the per-hour rate and that’s getting kind of dicey,” said Roedema.

County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio said his office is asking the state to help fund the attorney fees. Assistant County Administrator Wayman Britt said the county is evaluating the effectiveness of the team defense meetings.

“These are all unfunded mandates,” said Roedema. “The concept is good. It does make sense. But for us, it’s a lot of dollars.”

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