A law allowing parents to request jury trials when rights to their children may be severed has clogged the court system, sapped already overburdened CPS caseworkers and drained resources away from children at risk — and all this even though 70 percent of the cases have been dropped by the parents themselves, according to a report to be released today.
Of the 167 jury trials requested since the law took effect Dec. 17, 2003, just 17 had been completed by Dec. 17, 2004, and 16 of those juries agreed to sever parental rights.
"That time, money and energy should have been going to helping abused kids get into permanent homes," said Dana Naimark, of the nonprofit Children’s Action Alliance, which completed the study. "It’s been drained away from the lives of children we’re supposed to be protecting."
Child Protective Services case managers said they’ve been forced to cancel home visits and delay other matters to appear in court and defend their recommendation to permanently remove children from their parents.
Juvenile court judges around the state say the trials drag out the inevitable. Parents who are incarcerated, addicted to drugs or otherwise unable to parent their children are requesting trials that cost counties thousands of dollars and require judges, attorneys and caseworkers to reserve several days for trial, only to have the parent relinquish rights to their children at the last minute.
"I think it has been a drain on scarce resources," said Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Emmett Ronan, who presides over the county’s juvenile court. "It’s hard to say whether it’s failed or not. But there certainly don’t seem a whole lot of them that have actually gone to trial."
Typically, judges decide whether to terminate parental rights during a trial in which the judge rules after hearing the evidence. During the same one-year period, judges had 158 bench trials statewide and sided with CPS to sever parental rights in 151 of them.
Legislators agreed to allow jury trials in 2003 in a special session that also broadened CPS powers, required more coordination with law enforcement and provided funding for more than 100 new case managers.
"The concept was, let’s try to balance the situation," said Sen. Mark Anderson, R-Mesa, a chief architect of the changes. "We’re going to be giving a lot more power to CPS to take away kids . . . so let’s build in a little bit more protection in the rare cases where it’s a situation where the child really shouldn’t be removed and the parents really do have a valid argument that needs to be heard."
Because the law took effect immediately, however, it created havoc within the court system.
There were no rules governing jury trials in dependency cases, most attorneys practicing in juvenile court had never tried a case before a jury, and there are no jury facilities in the Southeast and Durango juvenile courts, so adult courtrooms needed to be reserved.
"Judges were blocking off four or five days on their calendar," Ronan said. "Then at the last minute the trial wouldn’t go."
Now, trials are scheduled in the downtown Phoenix courthouse and typically not in front of the juvenile court judge who handled the case from the beginning. That frees the judge to keep his caseload, but violates a policy of keeping the case with the same judge from start to finish.
Five severance cases have gone to juries so far this year in Maricopa County, Ronan said, including one where the jury found that the parent’s rights should not be terminated. In such cases, however, the child remains in foster care until a plan is made, contingent on the parent’s progress.
Anderson said he’s willing to consider amending the law to reduce the number of requests that don’t result in completed trials, but doesn’t believe it’s wise to scrap jury trials.
That’s exactly what the Children’s Action Alliance is recommending. The group wants legislators to allow the law to expire in 2006. Based on the first year’s experience, Ronan said, he would agree.
In December 2003, state law gave parents the right to request jury trials if their parental rights faced termination.
First year statistics, compiled by the nonprofit Children’s Action Alliance:
• 167 jury trials requested (54 in Maricopa County)
• 17 verdicts (two in Maricopa County): 16 to sever parental rights, one verdict against.
• 27 jury trial requests withdrawn by parents
• 22 trials denied because parents didn’t show at pretrial conference
• 7 cases where parents failed to appear at trial
• 34 cases where parents gave up their rights before trial was completed
• 9 cases where CPS withdrew the motion to sever parental rights
• 39 cases pending as of Dec. 17, 2004