By Charles H. Slemp III
Slemp is an attorney from Wise who represents abused and neglected children. He serves on the Virginia Commission on Youth, a bi-partisan legislative commission of the General Assembly which provides a legislative forum for review and study of youth policies and services.
Imagine you’re a parent. Your child was just taken by a social worker. You are jolted, frightened and emotional. You can’t afford to hire an attorney.
After the initial shock, you are left to sort through a minefield of statutory procedure and numerous court hearings. The process is complicated, hard to understand, and difficult to maneuver. The stakes are high: Comply with rules, you may be able to reunite your family; fail to rectify the reasons for the removal quickly, your parental rights can be terminated and your child adopted.
Fortunately, our system provides a court-appointed attorney to protect parental rights of indigent parents whose children enter the child welfare system. Unfortunately, the system does not adequately compensate these attorneys for the difficult work.
Attorneys must guide parents through the maze of foster care planning, local service providers, social workers and court proceedings, and counsel the parent on personal choices that led to removal of the child.
While most court-appointed counsel in these cases are effective, the work is stressful and thankless. Counsel must spend countless hours preparing for a hearing that pays just $120, without the possibility of any waiver of the fee cap. While the work is essentially pro bono, it impacts children and families for generations.
Even more startling, Virginia provides attorneys for accused criminals a waiver of fee caps, but child welfare cases do not allow additional compensation even for the most important, exceptional or difficult cases.
This month, the Virginia Commission on Youth took steps to increase the compensation for court-appointed counsel in child dependency and foster care cases. The recommendation represents Virginia’s continued commitment to achieving better outcomes and permanency for foster youth.
As a citizen member of the commission, I am thrilled with its action. The proposal now goes to the General Assembly during the 2015 session.
Competent representation is essential in helping children achieve permanency quicker and assisting families. I urge our legislators to adopt the recommendations.