Saying foster care lawyers are overwhelmed, LA County seeks increase in state funding

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Joining a chorus of public officials calling for investment in California's child welfare courts, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors Tuesday voted unanimously to lobby Sacramento to increase  spending on lawyers for foster children by about $33.1 million statewide.

With about 30,000 children in the foster care system in Los Angeles, each attorney is responsible for an average of 308 cases, said Leslie Heimov, executive director of the nonprofit Children's Law Center, which provides attorneys to all foster kids in L.A. and Sacramento counties.

That's nearly double the maximum caseload of 188 per attorney recommended by the Judicial Council of California. The optimal caseload would be 77 children per attorney.

"It's huge, more than 'a lot,' if you look at the recommendations from various entities," Heimov said.

She said the sky-high caseloads are a result of budgets not keeping up with growing numbers of children in foster care.

The numbers make it difficult for attorneys to advocate for the best interests of the children, she said, and turnover among attorneys has increased.

"Attorneys don't have any time to do anything but the absolute bare minimum, instead of the maximum, and that's not how any of us want to practice," Heimov said. "So it also has a significant impact on burnout." 

Michael Nash, the presiding judge of L.A. County's juvenile courts, said it can take a long time for attorneys to learn the juvenile court system, and turnover doesn't help.

"It's a far more complex system than most people think it is," Nash said. "You have these young, inexperienced lawyers coming in and they have a lot of energy but a lot of catching up to do."

Nash said the proposed budget increase would help, but likely still not make caseloads reach the ideal numbers.

Social workers in the system, too, are overworked, Nash said.

The only long term solution, in Nash's opinion, is reducing the number of kids in the foster care system.

"More of these cases could be resolved effectively outside of the court system," Nash said. "The courts should not be the first resort for these issues."

On Tuesday, the Department of Children and Family Services submitted a report to the Board of Supervisors outlining a plan for bring social worker caseloads down from the current 34 children to 24 children per social worker by March 2015.

The plans include hiring and training 450 additional social workers. So far, about half that number have been hired.

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