Sunday, August 10, 2008

A due process agenda for families

    Tomorrow (August 11) NCCPR formally releases Civil Liberties Without Exception: NCCPR's Due Process Agenda for Children and Families. It is a compilation of recommendations we have made over the years to ensure the rights of children, by bolstering justice for their families.

    For an example of why such an agenda is needed, take a look at an outstanding series of stories that ran in the San Jose Mercury News in Santa Clara County, Ca. earlier this year. The series documented the pathetic level of representation often provided to indigent families – and how that hurt their children by consigning them needlessly to foster care. The series also documented how children often are denied the chance to appear in court and speak for themselves, or even know about court dates.

    Both issues are extremely important – but guess which one got results.

    Yep. The Governor signed legislation to strengthen children's rights to be present and to speak at hearings.

    The expose of the failure of the firm representing parents in Santa Clara County produced results of a different sort. The firm announced it would end its work when its current contract expired. The county put the work up for bid. At least four firms bid for the business. Three promised revitalized, aggressive representation. The fourth probably made such promises too, but it's made up of the same lawyers who had the old contract. They reorganized, changed the firm's name, and promised to do better this time. As the Mercury News reported, their leader, John Nieman, was among the few to oppose a recommendation by a blue-ribbon commission to require more oversight of such firms to be sure they were really doing a good job. Instead, he said the problems would be solved if governments paid the lawyers more and mandated lower caseloads.

    Do I really have to tell you who won the contract?

The decision disgusted the director of a program co-coordinating appeals for indigent parents in California. Said Michael Kresser, executive director of California's Sixth District Appellate Program: "Dependency court remains a secretive, insular place where the rights of indigent parents to effective representation are sacrificed in favor of judicial expediency and entrenched insider groups." In a letter urging rejection of the incumbent firm because of its "extremely passive" approach, Kresser said "such representation harms not only the parents, but the interests children who are needlessly removed from their homes due to lack of effective advocacy for their parents."

Kresser's description could be applied to almost every such court in the United States. As another expert, who trains appellate lawyers across the country told the Mercury News: "There are still too many attorneys who are routinely appointed to represent children and parents who are 'potted plants.'"