Photo Courtesy of Casey Family Services and Connecticut Voices for ChildrenCameron Iacovelli, who has been in the care of the Department of Children and Families since he was 12 years old, told a crowd of child advocates and attorneys Monday that he didn’t know he had an attorney until he turned 18 years old at which point his attorney’s appointment was about to end. Iacovelli, now 20-years-old, said until he was 18 years old decisions about his care were made for him by an attorney he had never met. “In order to represent you they have to know you and meet you,” Iacovelli said. But Iacovelli was preaching to the choir Monday. The Anne E. Casey Foundation organized the educational forum to get legislators and policy officials to start thinking about measures the state can take to guarantee families involved in Child Protective Service cases get their day in court.
Kim Olsen, a parent whose children ended up in DCF care in August 2005, said she wasn’t told she was going to be represented by an attorney and then when they went to court and finally met the attorney he told them to sit there and be quite. She said she waited several weeks for the attorney to call back and were advised what their rights as parents were. She said she was unaware they had the right to make declarations on the mistakes in their DCF file. The good news is the state is on its way to correcting some of the problems in the Child Protection system Olsen and Iacovelli have experienced. Last year the state legislature established the Commission on Child Protection, which issued standards for attorneys involved in these types of cases just last week. The standards were developed to help the attorneys who take these cases prioritize duties and manage the practice in a way that benefits each child in the attorney’s caseload, which unfortunately is traditionally enormous. The average attorney who practices in this complex field carries an average of about 100 cases, according to a study by Fordham University. Robert Harris, the Cook County Public Guardian, said his office provides legal services to about 12,000 abused and neglected children a year, which is down from the mid-1990s when it serviced 50,000 a year. Harris himself carried a caseload of 800 to 1,000 cases. He said the changes in Illinois state stemmed from a consent decree in which the juvenile court system was ordered to increase the number of judges and hearing officers in the court system. Harris also advocated for better pay for attorneys who practice this type of law. Currently in Connecticut attorney’s receive a per case payment that amounts to about $500 per child, offering them little incentive to put the time and effort needed into the cases. The $500 fee is not an hourly rate, so even though a case could drag on for years, the attorney receives the lump sum. Michele Correse, deputy director of the Center for Family Representation, said she was the sole person clapping in the room when Harris advocated for an increase in pay because she knows how complex these cases often are. State Sen. Andrew MacDonald, D-Stamford, said using the lump sum method to pay attorneys is “inherently flawed.” He said in the next legislative session the Judiciary and Appropriations Committee will look to try and reform funding in these abuse and neglect cases because the system is “collapsing on itself.” Even if the legislature doesn’t do anything, it’s likely the judicial branch will step in and offer some guidance on the issue like it did last month when the state Supreme Court ruled that parents have the right to challenge the quality of work done by lawyers representing their children in parental termination hearings. Meanwhile, Iacovelli said he’s working with a group to put out a newsletter that helps inform DCF youth of their rights to an attorney. He said DCF social workers and foster parents should also make sure the children in their care know their rights. Raymond Torres, executive director of Casey Family Services said this is not only a Connecticut issue it’s a national issue in which the youngsters viewpoint is not being heard. He said the group gathered Monday would gather again in a few weeks before the next legislative session to capture the momentum from Monday and move forward with these issues.