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Budget plan affects child protective services

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SMITH COUNTY (TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH) - A budget battle is brewing between Smith County commissioners and a district court handling child protective services cases.

On Tuesday, county commissioners approved a $200,000 fund transfer to cover the 321st District Court's expenses, which are projected to run $500,000 over budget by Sept. 30 (end of Fiscal Year 2013).

Commissioners made the transfer contingent on notifying 321st District Court Judge Carole Clark the courts intention to no longer fund non-contract attorneys who are paid hourly rates to represent children and parents in child removal cases after July 18. The action was taken under the action item dedicated to the approval of "payments of accounts, bills, payroll, and transfer of funds, amendments, and health claims."

Judge Clark was shocked and disappointed by the commissioner court's action. She said the court may have overstepped its budgetary bounds with regard to her ability as an elected official to provide attorneys for children and indigent adults.

Nine contract attorneys receive $6,500 each month, or $702,000 annually, from the county for handling child removal cases. Seven of the attorneys are assigned a maximum 40 cases, which is set by Judge Clark, in which they represent children removed by Child Protective Services. Two of the attorneys represent parents in the cases.

Smith County currently has 367 children placed in substitute care for a litany of reasons, from child endangerment and drug abuse to pending capital murder cases against parents.

The 321st District Court's approved FY 2013 budget for attorney fees is $732,000. Commissioners have approved two transfers totaling $350,000 since May 28 pushing the court's revised budget to $1,082,000.

County Judge Joel Baker said the cost of disposing cases is much higher than in similar-sized counties. In Jefferson County (Beaumont), Baker noted, 5,145 family cases were disposed at a cost of $238,506 in 2012 compared to 1,455 cases disposed for $651,761 in Smith County. Baker said those figures were from the Texas Office of Court Administration.

In 2004, attorney fees were $86,000 compared to the projected $1.33 million cost by fiscal year's end, according to county auditor numbers.

"That's 15.5 times as much as was spent nine years ago," Baker said. "It's astronomical what that portion of the court's budget has grown."

Baker said the action was taken to "rein in" the court's expenditures. He said the disparity between Judge Clark's court and similar-sized counties' district courts that handle child cases led to the decision based on the court's authority to set reasonable limits to elected officials' budgets.

During the commissioners' meeting, County Attorney Stan Springerley told commissioners they "must consider the interests of the taxpayers" and are charged with strict compliance to the budget according to Local Government Code.

Commissioner Jeff Warr said the court's budget crossing the $1 million-mark indicated "something is out of whack."

Judge Clark said attorney's fees are driven by the number of CPS cases, which have risen 72 percent since September 2011.

"Cases are coming so fast I have instituted everything I can to move cases," she said. "At the end of the day we're talking about kids' lives."

State law requires attorneys be provided to children in CPS cases. It also requires parents receive legal counsel if they are indigent. Most parents are unemployed and have drug problems, Judge Clark said.

Judge Clark cited Family Code mandates by the state, which makes "attorneys essential to the administration of justice." She said Baker contacted her via email last week with a list of options, one of which was to stop using non-contract attorneys. She said she replied, "That is not an option."

Last year, Judge Clark had seven contract attorneys and requested four more during budget discussions, she said, to address the rising removal trend. She was given funding for two. Judge Clark said the additional attorneys would not have prevented her court from going over budget but would have saved the county money compared to paying the non-contract hourly rate of $75. The rate was set at $100 an hour but Judge Clark recently reduced the rate.

The Tyler Morning Telegraph was unable to contact similar-sized counties to determine per attorney caseloads, contracted fees and hourly rates by press time.

Contract attorney Brent Ratekin, who represents parents in removal cases, said additional caseloads would make representing indigent cases physically and financially impossible.

Last month Ratekin received $6,500 while reporting 173 hours work, or $37.50 per hour. His standard family case rate is $200 per hour, he said.

Ratekin also receives $6,500 per month as a contract attorney in Smith County criminal cases.

Judge Clark said reducing pay would reduce the number of "effective" attorneys willing to work child cases and that increasing caseloads would make them less effective for their clients.

Baker said the court's action was made because of the alarming amount of money being spent and that commissioners are committed to finding a solution that will bring Judge Clark's budget in line with other counties.

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