Rejected grant was a missed opportunity for Monroe County 

Monroe County officials don't often turn down grants, especially big ones.

So when the county rejected a $2.6 million state grant for the Monroe County Public Defender's Office to expand its representation of parents facing child neglect or abuse allegations, some members of the local legal and social-services communities were understandably confused.

And they see the county's decision as a missed opportunity.

"What they're giving up is the opportunity to solve small problems before they become big problems in the lives of very vulnerable children," says Bryan Hetherington, chief counsel for Empire Justice Center, a Rochester- and Albany-based legal aid organization. "And they're giving up the opportunity to save a lot of money."

The state Office of Indigent Legal Services solicited proposals from across Upstate for the grant, and the county Public Defender's Office was the sole recipient. The money was intended to set up a model Parental Representation Bureau based on New York City's wildly successful Center for Family Representation. That program has diverted thousands of cases from Family Courts and reduced foster care placements to the point that, according to its calculations, it's saved the city $37 million in foster care costs since 2007.

If Monroe County had accepted the grant, the new Public Defender's Office bureau would have provided attorneys, social workers, and parent advocates for low-income clients who are under investigation by the county's Child Protective Services or have had had a neglect or abuse petition filed against them in Family Court. The Center for Family Representation pioneered that model.

Representation would have been a key part of the effort, but it also would have served as an intervention program. In some neglect cases, CPS workers see issues that have grown out of some fundamental, fixable problem, says Hetherington.

Teams of attorneys and social workers can help with those matters, he says. If a family's housing is unsuitable, an attorney can help force the owner to make repairs or help the parents get out of a lease, he says. Lawyers and social workers can also help clients deal with income-support issues that are affecting children in a household, and they can help if parents have unaddressed mental health challenges or developmental disabilities.

And if those root problems can be resolved, the parents may ultimately stay out of court. They may also avoid situations where their children are placed in foster care, though some local attorneys and judges say that effect might have been minimal. The county has already made serious efforts to reduce such placements, they say. The state Office of Indigent Legal Services' proposal request says that effective representation of parents helps prevent the unnecessary separation of children from their families.

"We're very busy court in Family Court, and generally it's best for families to solve their problems – if they can safely do so – with the help of community services, rather than to be in court," says Monroe County Family Court Judge Joan Kohout, who was one of several Family Court judges who wrote a support letter for the grant application. She's a Democrat, but the other judges who supported the application are Republicans.

The Public Defender's Office never received a detailed explanation of why the county was turning down the grant, some grant supporters say; it was just told that the county's Department of Human Services had objections. The specific objections, they say, weren't shared with the office. Public Defender Tim Donaher, who devoted substantial time to preparing the application, declined comment.

County spokesperson Jesse Sleezer, however, provided a statement to local media explaining the decision.

"Monroe County declined to participate in this temporary, experimental, state-run program out of concern that it could have unintended consequences on the County's efforts to keep children and families safe," Sleezer wrote. "The program itself, although well intentioned, would have injected lawyers into cases of abuse and neglect much earlier, potentially intimidating child victims and limiting access by CPS workers who would otherwise assess and monitor the child's safety. The attorneys involved in this pilot program would serve only one client – the parent accused of abuse – and would not have any professional responsibility to serve the best interests of the abused child."

Sleezer also reiterated County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo's plan – included in the 2018 county budget – to add child protective services caseworkers and to boost those workers' pay so that they stay with the county.

Hetherington says the county's public position on the grant is flawed. The grant money would seed a program that would likely save the county substantial money in the long run, even if the county pays for it, he says. Dismissing the initiative because it's a pilot program is "specious," he says.

The county's reference to involving attorneys earlier in neglect and abuse cases either misunderstands or misrepresents the pre-court services that the Public Defender's Office would provide, Hetherington says. Those attorneys can help families in chaos get the resources they need to create a stable, loving environment for their children, he says.

"And sometimes, the party that is causing some of the chaos is the Department of Human Services itself, by erroneously terminating benefits or denying housing or doing those kinds of things," Hetherington says.

Allison Bates, a family law attorney and partner at Wesley Clark & Bates who wrote a letter supporting the grant application, says she can see both sides of the issue. She understands that Child Protective Services – which is part of the county's Department of Human Services – may worry that attorneys would advise their clients against talking to CPS or allowing caseworkers into their homes.

But sometimes parents cooperate with caseworkers to get services and then have trouble complying with requirements for those services. The caseworkers' notes end up getting used against the parents in court, Bates says.

She and Hetherington both point out that children receive appointed attorneys in any neglect or abuse case, and that CPS has attorneys and social workers that it can use throughout investigations and court proceedings.

"Really, the public defenders are the underdogs of Family Court," Bates says. "Everybody else has support."

The Brook Stagles case may be another reason – an unspoken one – for the county's rejection of the grant. The 3-year-old was the subject of open CPS complaints when she died from abuse-related injuries in November 2016.

Her father, Michael Stagles, and his girlfriend, Erica Bell, were convicted on homicide charges for her death. Bell beat and injured Brook, but she and Stagles shielded the girl from friends and family and failed to get her medical attention.

Richard Wexler, a former Rochester journalist who is now executive director of the D.C.-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, sees the Stagles case as a factor, too. His organization advocates for keeping families together whenever possible and argues that foster care placements are overused.

County Executive Dinolfo "may be afraid of doing anything that political opponents could portray as 'soft on child abusers,'" Wexler wrote in a critical blog post on the grant decision. "In fact, such deaths typically set off foster-care panics, sharp sudden spikes in needless removal of children," he wrote. And, he wrote, "improved family defense actually is needed more now than at any time in recent years."

Bates and Hetherington see the Stagles case as a factor in the grant decision, too.

"There's definitely a spotlight on CPS right now," says Bates.

But even if that were the driving factor for the grant rejection, the county is still missing a chance to build more just family welfare and court systems, she says.

"I wonder if a discussion could have been had of what those objections were, and maybe the program or the proposal could have been revised a little bit to a common ground, and that money could have been used in some way," Bates says.

This article has been updated to remove an outdated term. Attorneys representing children in neglect and abuse cases are now called attorneys for the children, not law guardians.

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