By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
The Colorado Supreme Court reviewed the draft standards last year but declined to accept them.
The other two attempts at revamping the GAL system have come from the Children's Legal Clinic. In 1992 the clinic took a case all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court, arguing that children have a right to have their wishes represented by their own attorney during a custody hearing. The case was significant, because GALs are not charged with representing children's wishes, just with their "best interests." (As Denver District Court Services Director Timothy J. Turley tersely puts it, "What the child would want is immaterial.")
In the case brought by the CLC, a twelve-year-old named Eric Hartley wished to be placed with his mother after his parents divorced. His GAL argued that custody should be awarded to Eric's father. Eric went to the Children's Legal Clinic and asked to hire one of that organization's attorneys to press his case in court. The lower court denied the request, and an appeals court declared the issue moot. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case but issued a decision declaring that children have no right to independent counsel.
The Hartley case has ominous ramifications for the kids now subject to the GAL system. It means that if a GAL fails in his duty--either because he is overloaded with cases, doesn't understand his responsibility or just plain doesn't care--that child is now barred from being represented by another, presumably competent, attorney.
The third proposal for addressing problems with the GAL system also came in 1992, when the CLC proposed a pilot project under which a state-wide pro bono GAL system would be run out of its office. The system would use attorneys who volunteer their time to take one or two GAL cases every year. The CLC proposes to train those attorneys and oversee their efforts. The idea is that well-trained lawyers will take one or two cases a year and dedicate themselves to fully representing children in a system that now cranks out cases like sausages. But so far, the court has not responded to the proposal.
In November 1992, Shari Shink, director of the CLC, wrote to Wakefield's predecessor as chief judge, Orrelle Weeks, offering to take three GAL cases a month--at no cost to the state. Shink says her goal was both to ease the load on overburdened contract GALs and to serve as a role model. She received no response. (Judge Weeks did not return phone calls seeking comment.)
The CLC recently submitted another proposal to the Colorado State Judicial Department. That proposal is still pending.
In the first five months of 1995, Denver Juvenile Court experienced a 45 percent increase in dependency-and-neglect petitions from the previous year: a total of 550 cases in which a judge was asked to determine a child's future. Judge Wakefield thinks the increase is a trend that will continue through the year as more and more families disintegrate.
One reason for the likely upsurge in cases requiring GALs, says Wakefield, is a recent successful lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. In that suit, the ACLU convinced a federal district court judge that Colorado wasn't providing enough social workers to handle the burgeoning caseload. The state responded by hiring more social workers--and the corresponding increase in D&N petitions may have the ironic effect of further swamping the GAL system.
But Wakefield doesn't expect lawmakers to respond with an accompanying budget increase for the juvenile court or the GAL program. "Last year the legislature cut some of our budget," he says. "I don't have much hope for next year."
By September 1, Denver Juvenile Court will have renegotiated its latest GAL contract with Allen Alderman and, according to Judge Wakefield, a few other attorneys. Wakefield says he fully expects to renew Alderman's contract.
After Jeremiah ran away from the Child Opportunity Program the last time, he turned up at his mother's house--the place Denver Social Services thought was so dangerous that it sparked the D&N petition in the first place. Because the social worker in the case said there were no other placements available, Jeremiah was allowed to stay with his mother until one opened up. Today the eleven-year-old is in Bannock House, a facility for troubled teenagers. His custody will come up for review again in three months.
Alicia returns to court in September with Laura Cerasoli. The little girl says she's hoping it will be her last trip to court.
end of part 2