This article, published today in The Chronicle of Social Change, discusses the impact of California's budget cuts on the San Francisco Juvenile Dependency Court.
In San Francisco, Dependency Court Trying to Roll with the Fiscal Punches by Angela Penny
On a sunny Thursday morning earlier this month, San Francisco Judge Linda Colfax takes her place in Room 402 of the courthouse to hear four dependency cases, just her first series on the docket that day. Three of the proceedings end in continuances.
Colfax is in for plenty of days like this in the foreseeable future. Budget cuts have hit California’s juvenile dependency courts hard in 2012, and in San Francisco, the county’s court capacity to hear abuse and neglect cases was literally cut in half, leaving Colfax with the lion’s share of the county docket.
“It’s challenging to work with such a bare-bones budget,” said Judge Patrick J. Mahoney, presiding judge of San Francisco’s Unified Family Court. He oversees the dependency court as well as family law and juvenile delinquency courts. “We are constantly looking for creative solutions to make sure we meet the needs of the county’s children.”
The budget for the San Francisco Superior Courts is $74 million this year, down from $98 million five years ago. As a result, the county has reduced the number of dependency courtrooms from two to one.
The decline was one county’s portion of a sweeping cut made at the state level to court budgets in July of 2011, when Gov. Jerry Brown approved spending measures that slashed $350 million from the statewide court budget of $1.5 billion in 2010.
San Francisco’s courts had a $13.75 million deficit for the fiscal year that began in July 2011 because of these cuts. They were forced to lay off 200 employees, or 41 percent of their staff, and closed 25 out of 63 courtrooms, including one dependency court.
The dockets of both dependency courtrooms are now largely in the hands of Colfax, a former public defender who was elected to the bench in 2010 and rotated to the juvenile dependency court in January.
She and Mahoney must also hear the majority of the cases that used to go to a special family law-dependency hybrid court, which was eliminated by the budget cuts. The cutbacks have predictably squeezed court functions. Settlement conferences, previously scheduled for 45 minutes, were reduced to 30 minutes.
There are some additional stress factors on the horizon for the court. The juvenile dependency panel Fitzsimmons serves on is administered by the San Francisco Bar Association and is funded by the governing body of the California courts, the Judicial Council. It is also in financial crosshairs after taking a cut from $5.1 million in 2010 down to $3.9 million for this year.
This year’s cuts have been absorbed without a dip in productivity because of concessions by the panel lawyers. The lawyers have accepted more than doubling their administration fees to the bar association, Fitzsimmons said and agreed to dropping the billing system from a per-minute to a per-half-minute system.
More significantly to the bottom line, says fellow panel lawyer Jill McInerney, the panel has been accepting of the city’s need to limit the amount of time they can pay for. “We have agreed, case by case, to just not get paid for everything we do,” she said.
Adding yet another layer to the time management challenges of the dependency court is Assembly Bill 12, which extends the age that youth can stay in foster care up to 21, creating another time burden on the dependency court because the progress of these young adults needs to be reviewed by the judge. The bill took effect in January of 2012.
Mahoney has begun to convene court stakeholders to discuss how to best function in crisis mode.
“I’ve just asked Judge Colfax to start a task force on how we are going to deal with this increased responsibility,” Mahoney said. “We have an informal task force including lawyers, judges, and representatives from the agency to discuss how we can streamline court functions. We meet about once a month.”
Fitzsimmons and McInerney both commended Colfax’s adjustment to the current situation.
“Judge Colfax does an amazing job of coping with these pressures,” said Fitzsimmons. Even with sped-up timelines on hearings, Colfax still “makes a personal connection with the youth, asking how they’re doing in school, or how their basketball game went.”