The cost of providing attorneys for children in Child Protective Services custody has reached an all-time high in Smith county.
As more and more taxpayer money is being used to cover attorney fees, elected officials are being forced to figure out where to draw the line. However, the number of children being removed from their homes is still increasing, and attorneys do not expect that to change.
"We're trying to pay people a fair amount to handle this part of the county's business and we've got to have some controls, somehow to make sure that other elected officials can operate within the budget that we set," says Smith County Judge Joel Baker.
This fiscal year, Smith County Commissioners allotted $732,000 for attorney fees in the 321st District Court. In May, the county transferred $150,000 more toward that budget. Last week, they transferred another $200,000 from various department budgets to cover the court's attorney costs.
"It's not about what we'd love to do, because it would cost a fortune to do what we'd love to do for these children. There are so many competing needs in the county and we've got to look at all of them," says Judge Baker.
The budget to cover attorney fees in Smith County's family court has increased steadily since 2008, but overspending hasn't stopped. This year, overspending is expected to reach an all-time high. The extra $350,000 commissioners have transferred to the court may not be enough.
321st District Court Judge Carole Clark says the increasing cost reflects society's struggles.
"A decade ago, families were more intact than they are now. A decade ago, we were dealing with crack and not meth," she says. A decade ago, Judge Clark had fewer children coming through her courtroom.
In June of 2011, 219 Smith County children were being represented by county-funded attorneys. In 2012, that increased to 233 children. Right now, that number sits at 347 children currently being represented by county tax payer money.
"I think finding a balance between how much the lawyers are going to be asked do to and how much they're going to be paid is the ultimate question," says Judge Clark.
"More children are being removed from more dangerous households," says Tyler attorney John Hardy.
Hardy is paid hourly to handle some of the overflow cases that aren't assigned to the nine attorneys Smith County has already contracted with to represent children in the 321st District Court. Tuesday, Hardy asked commissioners for more time to reach a compromise.
"It's everybody's hope that we can solve this without the need for unnecessary and embarrassing litigation. We don't need to waste those resources," he says.
As things stand, after mid-July, eight of the hourly attorneys working in the 321st District Court, including Hardy, would stop receiving pay from Smith County.
The commissioner's court says they plan to study the process of other counties that are spending significantly less on their CPS cases. A committee of Smith County attorneys from the family law court is currently working on a solution that they'll propose to commissioner's court in the coming weeks.