04/13 - Attorney general’s staff dwindles - East Valley Tribune: News

04/13 - Attorney general’s staff dwindles

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Posted: Tuesday, April 13, 2004 10:04 am

The Department of Economic Security isn’t the only state agency having financial woes dealing with the new child welfare reforms.

An increase in child abuse cases, jury trials when parents are about to lose legal rights to their children and a stream of resignations from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office have left the agency looking for an additional $5 million next year.

The money is to stem a growing number of children languishing in foster care.

The number of children in state custody for at least two years has increased dramatically — from a low of 700 in January 2001 to about 2,000 today — and will continue to rise unless more lawyers are hired, said Attorney General Terry Goddard.

"It’s a tragedy for the kids. It’s also expensive for the state," Goddard said.

The number of children being removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect has increased 24 percent this fiscal year, while the number of lawyers available to handle these dependency cases has declined 25 percent.

Seven lawyers have left in recent weeks, and the 39 who remain are handling up to 170 cases each, far above the American Bar Association standard of 60 dependency cases per lawyer.

"The practical impact is things get missed," said Margaret Benny, an assistant attorney general representing CPS. "It may delay a case. It may give the parents an extra year. . . . And the kids just sit. They sit in foster homes. They sit in group homes."

Benny has 125 cases of her own, in addition to helping cover for about 375 cases left behind by three lawyers in the Mesa office who recently resigned.

The caseload is about onethird higher than the attorney general’s office anticipated, and includes an average of 17 jury trials a month, part of the reforms to allow parents about to lose legal rights to their children one last shot.

Some lawyers have been shifted from child support enforcement and other areas to handle CPS cases.

Goddard wants to hire 30 new lawyers and increase salaries to keep them.

He said the children who are coming into foster care deserve to be there, and the numbers, at least in the short term, will continue to grow.

"It’s hard to read the descriptions of what’s happening to these children," Goddard said. "We’re not getting any close calls."

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