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Counties must pay for parents' lawyers in child welfare cases, high court rules

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WILLMAR -- A recent Minnesota Supreme Court ruling removes any doubt that counties are required to pay for court-appointed attorneys for parents or guardians in parental rights termination cases.

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The decision and the costs associated with these cases involving a child in need of protective services could have a "very big impact on the financial risks to Kandiyohi County," said County Administrator Larry Kleindl.

The court ruled that counties must pay the hourly rate for attorneys appointed by the court to represent low-income parents or guardians during procedures to terminate the parental rights of that parent or guardian.

Until 2008 when the state's public defender's budget was cut, those costs had been covered by the state. Counties were told at that time they would have to start pay the bills for court-appointed attorneys.

Under protest, the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners agreed to take on the extra financial burden but sent a resolution to the Legislature asking them to fix the problem. Two other counties, Rice and Crow Wing, took the issue to the Supreme Court.

Not only did the court say counties were responsible, the justices also upheld a lower court's decision to hold the Crow Wing County Board in contempt for refusing to pay the attorney fees in these cases.

Kandiyohi County Attorney Boyd Beccue said the "sweeping" ruling by the court also takes away a safety net the Kandiyohi County Commissioners had put in place in an effort to control the costs. The commissioners had requested that judges appoint only local attorneys in order to avoid paying "windshield" time for out-of-town attorneys to come to Willmar to represent guardians in cases regarding a child in need of protective services.

The court said the limitations on mileage cannot be imposed, said Beccue, adding that the court system is in control of which attorneys they appoint and any efforts by counties to "restrain or rope in those costs" is not allowed.

Beccue told the county commissioners this week he's also concerned the district court might increase the hourly rates those attorneys receive. The current cap of $75 an hour, which has been place for more than a decade, is much lower than the $175 to $185 hourly fee charged by private attorneys, he said.

The good news, said Beccue, is that during the year and half Kandiyohi County has paid the fees, the participating attorneys have billed the hours very carefully and "the vast majority of the bills have been reasonable."

Kleindl said in 2009 the county paid about $65,000.

Without the local controls in place, however, the costs could increase in the future, said Beccue. "That's our concern."

With counties trying to manage a budget that includes reductions in state aid, Kleindl said these cases could cause a budgeting problem.

Kleindl said everyone agrees that parents and guardians in such cases need legal representation. But he said the state agreed 20 years ago to cover court costs when they took over court administration from counties.

He said the state has reneged on its responsibility and he fears that with the state's budget problems, the court opinion "opens the floodgates" for other state costs to be shifted back to counties.

"We need to protect the children," said Beccue.

But because counties are following state mandates when filing cases for a child in need of protective services -- to protect children from "egregious harm," it should be the state's responsibility to pay the fees for defense attorneys.

When Commissioner Richard Larson asked about the consequences of counties not paying for the attorneys, Beccue said the court made it clear commissioners can be held in contempt of court and face fines and/or jail time if they refuse to pay. "The orange jumpsuits are waiting," he said.

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Carolyn Lange
A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers county government and regional news with the West Central Tribune.
(320) 894-9750
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