The two three-year state grants totaling almost $1.2 million awarded to the Steuben County Public Defender’s Office during the past year are aimed at improving parental representation facing neglect and abuse petitions in family court.
The two Upstate Family Defense (Child Welfare) Quality Improvement and Caseload Reduction grants have allowed the county Public Defenders Family Court unit to hire an additional attorney which reduces neglect and abuse caseloads.
“This means that each attorney can devote more time to helping a parent either avoid having a neglect petition filed against him or her,” said county Chief Defender Shawn Sauro “Or get services in place to allow for the return of a child that has been removed due to concerns within the family home.”
Sauro said studies show that poverty is the key factor in most neglect and abuse cases and most cases where a child is placed in foster care. The state grants now allow parents legal services and other support they are unable to afford, he said.
“By giving these families support both legally and emotionally, parents are often able to remedy any concerns,” Sauro said.
Often attorneys represent parents who lack the basics of life such as permanent housing, food, transportation to get to required services or a job, and even a phone. This means the attorney functions as a social worker to get the necessities for the client in order for the client to succeed, he said.
Sauro noted the first state grant’s caseload reduction recently allowed a public defense attorney the time to actively help a client, a victim of domestic violence. The attorney went to the client’s home, packed up needed items, retrieved the children from school, provided a meal and saw the parent and children safely off to an undisclosed secured shelter.
That action avoided a possible neglect petition being filed against the parent – and gave the family a start on a more stable life, he said.
The second grant will fund two case manager positions with these individuals providing support and helping clients tap into other services, according to Sauro.
“These grants show a shift in the thinking when dealing with these difficult cases,” he said. “It shows an understanding that poverty should not be an obstacle to parenting.”