Travis County bush
Friday, May 17, 2019 by Jack Craver

Many parents at risk of losing their children look to Travis County’s Office of Parental Representation

Low-income criminal defendants aren’t the only people Travis County is required to provide with legal representation. Parents at risk of losing custody of their children are also afforded assistance at no cost from the county Office of Parental Representation.

OPR, which was established in 2009, represents parents who have had their children removed from the home by the state Department of Children and Families or who are at risk of losing their children due to allegations of neglect or abuse. Attorneys in OPR are tasked with fighting for a parent’s right to keep custody of his or her children. A separate county department, the Office of Child Representation, represents the interests of the children in those cases, including fighting against custody if they believe a child’s welfare is in danger.

OPR employs six attorneys, three paralegals, one caseworker and one administrative assistant on a budget of $1.18 million. That staff is only able to take on about a third of the indigent parents who need representation. The majority of parents are therefore assigned private attorneys paid by the county on an hourly basis.

The split between the cases taken by the office and those contracted out is similar to what the county envisions for the proposed public defender’s office. The Travis County Commissioners Court voted last week to apply for a state grant that would provide $19 million to set up an office that would eventually represent about 30 percent of criminal defendants, while the rest would continue to be assigned private attorneys.

Just as advocates for criminal defendants have argued that dedicated public defenders provide better representation than assigned private attorneys, Lori Kennedy, the head of OPR, said the evidence was clear that she and her team offer much more than assigned attorneys do. She made the remarks as part of a presentation Tuesday to the Commissioners Court.

An OPR attorney spends an average of 38.5 hours per client, while a private attorney averages 22.5 hours. OPR paralegals spend 9.5 hours on average per client, while their private sector counterparts average just an hour and a half. Finally, OPR clients benefit from direct consultation with a social worker, who helps to connect them with necessary services, from counseling to housing.

In the conversation about criminal defense, one of the main concerns was that the county pays its assigned private attorneys a flat fee, which some say incentivizes the attorneys to strike plea bargains as quickly as possible, rather than trying to drive a harder bargain or take the case to trial.

In contrast, Kennedy says her goal at OPR is to avoid trials and try to come to a resolution with the Office of Child Representation that results in the child returning home with the parent(s). Going to trial is a last resort that she seeks to avoid. In light of this fact, she addressed concerns saying that the hourly rates for assigned OPR attorneys may incentivize them to take cases to trial.

“We try our hardest to settle cases,” she said.

The great majority of cases – between 83 and 88 percent each of the last four years – conclude with a child getting to stay with a parent or other relative, said Kennedy. Her goal as much as possible is to keep families intact, rather than sending children to foster care.

Kennedy said most clients are young – between 18 and 21 years old – and have multiple children.

While County Judge Sarah Eckhardt reminded her colleagues that those ruled indigent are entitled to free representation, Kennedy replied, “I will tell you there are very few people who aren’t indigent on the CPS docket.”

That is similar to what Kameron Johnson, the Travis County Juvenile Public Defender, reported about juveniles facing criminal charges: 97 percent qualify for free defense based on family income.

When Commissioner Jeff Travillion asked whether it would make sense for OPR to be a part of the proposed public defender’s office, Kennedy enthusiastically endorsed the idea. The criminal justice system and Child Protective Services overlap heavily, and the more that attorneys in both areas can collaborate and share information about clients, the better. (Attorneys in the same office wouldn’t have to worry about running afoul of attorney-client confidentiality.)

In addition to OPR and the Juvenile Public Defender’s Office, the county also runs a mental health public defender’s office that specializes in representing criminal defendants with mental illnesses.

While the state provides a small portion of the funds the county needs for criminal defense services, “it does not help us at all” on CPS cases, Eckhardt glumly noted.

The office’s goals for 2019 include collaborating more with other county programs to help clients find housing, employment and substance abuse treatment. Housing is extremely challenging to come by in the area, and clients typically have very low incomes and three to five children, said Kennedy.

The office is also exploring options for a state contract with a psychiatrist who could take part in cases involving mental health concerns.

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