About the Author
Beth Cortez-Neavel is a contributing reporter covering Travis County for the Austin Monitor. Beth works in words, data, photography and radio. She's a long-time Austinite living in the District 1 area.
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TravCo sees dramatic rise in child welfare cases, associated costs
Travis County spent $2,466,295 in private attorney’s fees during FY 2013 due to the rising number of child abuse and neglect legal cases filed in the region.
According to a joint report conducted by the County’s Justice and Public Safety Divisions, the number of cases has grown rapidly over the past six years. Due to the growing caseloads, County Executive Roger Jefferies told Travis County Commissioners Tuesday that attorneys with the Office of Child Representation and the Office of Parental Representation have maxed out the number of caseloads they can work.
That, in turn, has pushed cases and county money to private attorneys. Since FY 2008, private attorney expenditures have risen 56.8 percent from $1,572,326. The total expenditures on legal fees, going to attorney in each office and to private attorneys, has rise 53 percent since FY 2008. Expenditures for FY 2013 CPS cases total $4,048,837.
To keep cases within the two offices, Jefferies recommended Tuesday to add two full-time paralegal employees – one for each office – to the FY 2015 budget request.
The two offices provide legal services to low-income families involved in Child Protective Services child abuse and neglect legal cases, as mandated by Texas Family Code. The offices were partially funded through a state grant from FY 2009 to FY 2011. County budgeted money now funds all indigent expenses. The two new positions would cost a combined $132,259 per year and allow attorneys in each office to take on an estimated 50 more caseloads.
126th District Court Judge Darlene Byrne, who hears most CPS cases in the Travis County Civil Family Court, said the new employees would make a huge difference.
“By having OCR and OPR on the child welfare side (of the courtroom) we’ve raised the quality of true representation across the board,” Byrne said. “These two offices are closed to me. Every case assignment that comes through my door today will have to have a private attorney appointed, and it’s been this way for a while, simply because they are at maximum capacity.”
The money for the two positions was earmarked, or set aside in the allocated reserve budget, for the FY2014, but the Commissioner’s Court requested a cost driver report be completed before moving ahead with the positions, to gauge the impact of caseloads and expenditures.
The report looked at all indigent civil defense court cases from 2008 to 2013. This included juvenile cases, CPS mediations and cases involving contempt of court-ordered child support, but CPS legal cases were the main cost driver, accounting for 84 percent of all caseloads.
In 2009, when a state grant created the child and parent representation offices, Jefferies said Travis County had 1,777 confirmed abuse and neglect cases; in 2013, the number of cases rose to 2,645. Already for this fiscal year up to Feb. 2, 2014, there have been a confirmed 940 child abuse and neglect cases. In 2013, both offices had a combined 464 CPS cases assigned, up 61.7 percent from 2008 when they had 287 (before the creation of the two offices).
In Texas, the rate of confirmed victims of child abuse and neglect cases per 1,000 children in the state dropped considerably from FY 2009 to FY 2012, but it is on the rise again. In 2009, 10.5 out of 1,000 children had cases. In 2012 that number dropped 9.1 per 1,000 children. However, FY 2013 rose to 9.3 per 1,000 children, or 66,398 total confirmed abuse and neglect cases.
Jefferies said the rise in Travis County caseloads is due to an overall increased child population in Texas, increased economic distress and changes in child welfare laws. There’s an anticipated growth in caseloads in the future, but Jefferies told the Monitor he’d leave that to the statisticians, who’ve been hired as part of a proposed new civil courthouse plan.
The court took no action on the request Tuesday, but the two positions will be discussed when the draft budget comes up for discussion at the end of July.
“I wanted to point out the condition of our community and our children,” Byrne said during the Tuesday discussion. “When you walk out on the street, one in four children are living in poverty in our county that we think is so affluent. It’s just something that raises my concern about our children’s welfare in Travis County. I want them to have good quality representatives for the parents and the children.”
July 3, 2014
ZAP postpones case for salvage business in hopes of a better plan
By Elizabeth Pagano
After nearly a decade worth of talks with the city about its fate, an environmentally complicated piece of Northwest Austin land had its turn at the Zoning and Platting Commission last month but came away with a postponement.
The city annexed the five-acre property, where Ace Auto Glass operates at 6308 Spicewood Springs Road, in December 2013. Owner Roy Cavanaugh was asking for a zoning change from Interim Rural Residential to Commercial Mixed Use and Community Recreation, in order to have recreational vehicle and boat storage on the land. Staff recommended a lighter zoning – SF-6 – due to the proximity to residences and the environmental sensitivity of the land, which borders Bull Creek.
According to the city, its use as a salvage business must stop in 10 years. Cavanaugh does have a permit that will allow convenience storage and a kennel, even though the land is in the Drinking Water Protection Zone.
Mike Wilson spoke on behalf of the applicant, and told the commissioners that he believed the site had operated as a salvage yard since 1952. Cavanaugh purchased the property in 1984. Wilson explained that they are currently talking to the city about transferable development rights, or TDRs, for the current salvage use. That deal could dedicate the portion of the property in the critical water quality zone to transferable development rights. Wilson said that they hoped to complete that deal in “the next couple of months,” which he said would make the CR zoning request unnecessary. It would also allow Cavanaugh to clean up the site, remove the salvage yard and establish a conservation easement.
However, the Commercial Mixed Use zoning would allow the current glass, auto sale, auto repair, convenient storage and dog kennel uses.
Commissioners expressed concern that the owner was exploring both avenues simultaneously, and voted unanimously to postpone the case.
“It does appear that you are working both sides of this issue, where you are working with Council on some rights and then coming for zoning,” said Commissioner Patricia Seeger. “I’m just a little frustrated about the TDRs and everything else that is going on while we are evaluating rezoning.”
Seeger also said that she found the zoning request too aggressive for the property, noting that she had significant environmental concerns about the requests, and significant issues with the condition of the road.
Wilson explained that TDR negotiations had been going on since 2005, and they had made the zoning request because rezoning is free in the first year following annexation by the city.
Commissioner Rahm McDaniel told Cavanaugh that he had put himself through college by fixing up old cars, and had purchased parts from his salvage yard during that time.
“In many ways, used auto parts made it possible for me to finish college. And to the extent that your business played a part in that, I appreciate it,” said McDaniel, who went on to explain that he was uncomfortable with the zoning request, and would support a postponement so that an alternate solution could be found.
“I’m 67, and I’ve been working at that junkyard almost every day for 30 years to help my family, my brother and sisters, and my friends,” said Cavanaugh. “But I’ve been listening to my social conscience, while also listening to my responsibility to my family. I’ve struggled with how to unwind this problem. I have a business that around me has evolved an environmental awareness. I’m trying to figure this out, but I’m constantly being constrained by the government and everything, and by my own ignorance. How do you know about all of this code?”
Cavanaugh said that he had ultimately settled on transferable development rights as that solution, along with a change in zoning that could allow them to operate some of his businesses until he could transition out of their operation.
The Lone Star Sierra Club’s Roy Waley spoke in support of the postponement, which would allow the time to make the “best environmental decision” possible and hoped that a solution could be found which would be beneficial to both the environment and the Cavanaugh family.
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