Monday, September 03, 2001

Attorney selection changing




By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — Butler County officials have changed the way attorneys are chosen to represent children in abuse and neglect cases in juvenile court.

        In an effort to improve the children's legal representation, the Butler County commissioners have approved a two-year, $823,000 contract with the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati. The agency will provide attorneys who have expertise in children's issues and more time to spend on each case.

        It will replace the current system in which Butler County Juvenile Court selected and paid attorneys to represent children in abuse and neglect cases.

        The commissioners and juvenile court worked together to create this new system.

        “We want to make sure children have good representation in juvenile court,” said County Commissioner Mike Fox, a longtime critic of the current guardian ad litem program.

        Too often, the guardians ad litem — attorneys appointed to represent children — had little or no expertise in juvenile issues and didn't devote enough time to the cases, he said.

        “In some cases, the guardians ad litem didn't even meet with the children until the court date,” Mr. Fox said. “They would come into the hearings unprepared.”

        Rob Clevenger, director of juvenile court operations, said the main problem has been too few guardians ad litem to handle a growing caseload, and rising performance standards.

        Juvenile court has used a pool of about 18 guardians ad litem to handle about 450 cases a year, he said.

        “We overwhelmed them with these cases,” Mr. Clevenger said.

        These attorneys used to be expected to serve as no more than the child's voice in court, although many did a lot more than that, Mr. Clevenger said. But in 1999, juvenile court began requiring the guardians ad litem to do more work outside the courtroom with the clients.

        A Butler County Public Defender Commission will be created to oversee the program.

        The commissioners select ed county Administrator Derek Conklin, county Finance Director Tim Williams and Gary Sheets, the county's attorney, to be on the commission. Juvenile court will choose two people to serve on the commission.

        The old guardian ad litem program had cost about $150,000 a year. With the state providing a 40 percent reimbursement, the new program will cost the county $60,000 to $70,000 a year more than the old one.

       



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