Rising juvenile court caseloads are creating scrambles around the state to find and fund court-appointed special advocates and guardians ad litem. Millions more dollars also will be needed for public defenders who soon will be required for the first time in many more delinquency cases.
Marion Superior Juvenile Judge Marilyn Moores blames an epidemic of parental heroin use for a recent surge in child in need of services filings, compounding a chronic financial shortfall for guardians ad litem in Indianapolis.
Judges are pleading with the state to budget another $6 million to $7 million annually to address these current and future needs. But they say that won’t begin to meet the full costs, so the remainder still will have to be picked up by counties.
“The pie is being sliced thinner and thinner,” said Jasper Circuit Judge John Potter, a member of the GAL/CASA Advisory Commission. The number of CASA volunteer programs around the state has nearly doubled since 2008, he said, but funding has stayed about the same even as CHINS filings soared.
And case filings continue to rise. According to statistics from the Department of Child Services, CHINS filings in Marion County jumped 16 percent in July compared with the same month a year ago. Statewide, the 14,961 filings in July were up 9.2 percent compared to July 2013.
Even in his northwest Indiana county of about 33,000, parental drug use is creating a surge in neglect cases, Potter said. “Meth and heroin,” he said. “Heroin is a huge problem right now, and it just eventually leads to neglected and abused kids. That’s what a lot of cases are right now.”
CASA and GAL funding has been short for years and has required increasing local funding matches, hitting some counties harder than others. Statewide, about 5,000 children are on waiting lists as wards of the state without a CASA volunteer or GAL.
While some advocates wanted the roughly $3 million in state funding for CASA/GALs doubled, the Supreme Court won’t seek that much. “To begin bridging the gap, the Court’s budget submission includes a request for an additional $2.1 million for the GAL/CASA fund, with the goal of ensuring that every abused child in court proceedings has an advocate,” said a statement issued by spokeswoman Kathryn Dolan.
Henry Circuit Judge Mary Willis, president of the Indiana Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, is concerned assurances that children will have someone guarding their best interests in court are falling short without a plan to put the promise into practice.
“It doesn’t do much good if that child just sits on a waiting list the entire history of their case,” Willis said. “It’s a fiction.”
Indiana’s CASA/GAL system is a patchwork – 78 of 92 counties have a CASA program in which volunteers take on cases to represent the child’s interests in court. But trained advocates aren’t always available, and numerous counties have waiting lists. In Marion County, guardians ad litem who are paid typically handle a large volume of cases.
Lake Superior Judge Thomas Stefaniak is undecided about whether the state needs to pick up a greater share of the cost of CASAs, but he noted the court recently went before the county council to lobby for more funding next year.
“It’s kind of one of those unfunded mandates in large part,” he said.
Courts also will have to ensure that public defenders are assigned in a number of juvenile matters beginning Jan. 1.
That’s when Criminal Rule 25 takes effect, establishing a right to counsel for children in delinquency proceedings and perhaps some CHINS cases. The rule adopted by the Supreme Court in December 2013 says counsel must be appointed in juvenile cases when:
• A request is made to waive the child to a court with criminal jurisdiction;
• A child’s parent, guardian or custodian has an interest adverse to the child;
• A proceeding may result in placement in the Department of Correction, juvenile detention or other non-relative, out-of-home placement; or,
• A child is arrested or detained on probable cause for murder, attempted murder or reckless homicide.
Willis said the rule covers the vast majority of delinquency cases where defenders aren’t currently being assigned. Sources familiar with the program believe the estimated statewide cost to implement the rule will be about $4 million a year split between the state and counties.
The Indiana Public Defender Commission reimburses 40 percent of public defender costs to counties, but only 54 of Indiana’s 92 counties participate, according to Chairman Mark W. Rutherford.
“My best educated guess is that (Criminal Rule 25) will increase the costs of providing indigent services in the 54 counties that participate … in the aggregate between $900,000 to $1 million,” he said.
Commission member and Jasper Superior Judge James Ahler said some counties have indicated they may withdraw from the state program, which limits defender caseloads. Ahler explained many counties would have to hire more defenders or increase appointments to comply with program eligibility requirements for reimbursement.
Some counties may opt out to avoid hiring extra help, figuring the additional cost is not sufficiently offset by state reimbursement. He said the downside in such a situation is public defenders’ caseloads may increase beyond reasonable limits.
“It’s going to be a big change,” Ahler said of the new rule. He estimates that after Jan. 1, public defenders will be needed in 40 percent more juvenile cases in Jasper County. The county already has budgeted to hire another public defender because of the new rule.
“Will it be an economic hardship on my county? Yes, up front it will cost more money for our county,” Ahler said. “On the other hand, 40 percent of appointments will be reimbursable, and I still think it makes better economic sense for us to participate in the program in the long run.
“I don’t think it’s always as simple as dollars and cents,” he said. “I think the county benefits when you have better quality or high-quality litigators when those accused don’t have the money to pay for a lawyer.”
Willis said legislators during interim study committee hearings have been open to changes in juvenile justice and improving the system as a whole. “We don’t just punish kids for bad behavior, we’re trying to wrap services around them to make them successful,” she said.
But a first step has to be boosting funding from the state.
“It’s inadequate. Frankly, I don’t care where the funding comes from,” Willis said. “We recognize the need is there, and this is an issue where additional funding is needed to address the problem.”•