Thursday, March 8, 2012

Child welfare in Los Angeles: The lawyer who didn’t know his own client (and other things we know only because L.A. courts now are open)

            Granted, a hearing in a child welfare case can include a lot of people.  There may be a lawyer for each parent as well as the children and, of course the child welfare agency.  The entire family may be present, along with witnesses.  That’s just for one case, and these courts hear a lot of cases.

            Still, you would think that Kyle Puro, a court-appointed lawyer for indigent parents would have recognized the guy sitting right next to him in Los Angeles County dependency court recently.

            It was his client.

            Puro was “representing” the father of a 15-year-old boy.  Apparently, he’d either never met the man or spoke to him so briefly whenever they did meet that it didn’t make much of an impression. Yet now, Puro was supposed to stand there and make the strongest possible case for his client – whoever the guy is.

            The referee (sort of a not-quite-judge in these kinds of cases) Robert Stevenson, was not pleased.  He became even less pleased when he found out that Puro didn’t have his file for the case with him either.  “You’ve got to pull it together,” Stevenson told Puro, before ordering Puro to join him in another room for a private chat.

            We know about Kyle Puro’s apparent lack of preparation thanks to Ben Baeder, a reporter for a chain of newspapers in suburban Los Angeles, including the Pasadena Star News.  He’s written the best eyewitness account yet, in the month since such accounts became possible.

Until just over a month ago, most people in Los Angeles would have had no way of knowing about appalling lapses like this.  It all would have taken place behind closed doors.  But then Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Michael Nash, who is at least as fed up with this kind of sloppiness as Stevenson, ordered those doors opened.  Now hearings are presumed open to the press.  Members of the public have to meet a higher bar for entry, but they stand a better chance of getting in than in the past.

            Notwithstanding the fact that parents in these cases often are among those most anxious to have these hearings open, Kyle Puro’s bosses are trying to get Judge Nash’s order overturned and shut the public out again.  No wonder.  Imagine the public seeing the wretched performance of their attorneys day after day.  People might even wonder if Los Angeles Dependency Lawyers, Inc. (LADL), a consortium of private law firms, located one next to the other on the fourth floor of the same building, really ought to have this contract at all.

            Something similar happened in New York City.  In part because of news accounts after these courts were opened there, the system for assigning counsel to indigent parents was completely revamped – and vastly improved.  Santa Clara County also saw changes after judges there let Karen De Sa of the San Jose Mercury News see what really goes on.

            But in Los Angeles, Puro’s boss, Marlene Furth, was busy blaming the presence of a reporter for Puro’s apparent memory lapse:

            "There was just this level of tension," she said of a reporter being in the courtroom. "Everyone is like, `The press is watching. The press is watching."'

            In fact, the blunder may not have been entirely Puro’s fault.  If his caseload was typical, in addition to representing the father he didn’t even recognize, Puro was representing parents in 199 other cases.  Furth told reporter Baeder that

"The one thing [the lawyers] say, the one thing, is that they don't have time to talk with their clients," she said.  There isn't really time to have a case-by-case review of whether the press should be in the courtroom, attorneys said.

            Of course, if you don’t have time to talk to your client, there is no time for a case-by-case review about anything – and no way you can possibly provide decent representation.  So legal representation for indigent parents becomes little more than a sham.

            There also are questions about whether high caseloads are necessary for the firms that make up LADL to stay in business.

            The story doesn’t say how much money the firms are paid, but the law firm supposedly representing the children (where the attorneys juggle caseloads of “only” 150)   get $680 per case.  No, not $680 per hour, or even $680 per day - $680 per case.  If that’s what Los Angeles is paying the firm that represents the children, it’s hard to imagine that, politically, there is any way the firms representing parents are doing any better.

            Thanks to open courts, and Baeder’s story, we learned about some odd behavior by at least one lawyer representing children as well:

One attorney representing a 2-year-old child recommended the county launch an investigation into the child's former foster parents because the foster parents had taught the child a few words in sign language. The attorney alleged it inhibited the child's verbal speech, but an investigation was never launched.

The child's birth parents defended the former foster parents. "They did a great job," said the [child’s] father of the former foster parents.

It was a happy day for him and the child's mother. They had officially regained custody of their daughter and were no longer under court supervision.

            So, thanks to open courts, readers learned that birth parents and foster parents aren’t always adversaries – they can work together to help a child, as long as the child’s “law guardian” doesn’t come along and throw a monkey wrench into the works.

            Needless to say, the firm that has the contract to represent children’s attorneys also is trying to get Judge Nash’s ruling overturned.

            But in the meantime, the quality of representation just might get just a little better.  Because, as Marlene Furth would say: “The press is watching. The press is watching.”