LaGRANGE — The judge of Troup County Juvenile Court asked county commissioners on Friday for additional funding to provide a court-appointed attorney for third-party relatives of children in dependency hearings.
Judge Michael Key requested $30,000 to hire one attorney to represent indigent third parties, such as low-income grandmothers, in custody and other juvenile court proceedings. Previously, the Public Defenders Standards Council provided the funding, but ceased the program July 1.
“That puts us in a bind because that person has a right to be represented,” Key told commissioners at their work session. “We know we have to have that.”
In 2014, three attorneys represented indigent clients in the juvenile court. The lead attorney, who often represented mothers in hearings, handled 204 cases, Key said. The second attorney, who generally represented the father, handled 94 cases. The third attorney for which Key is not attempting to provide funding, handled six cases. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t busy, he said.
“We’re talking about highly specialized work,” Key said. “It’s not something you can just walk in and do.”
Key told commissioners that the attorneys who represented indigent clients are all part-time contractors and the court has had a difficult time maintaining those positions and keeping them staffed — mainly because of the low pay and long hours, he said.
Still, Key said under his interpretation of the state’s juvenile justice laws, he feels providing that third attorney is an important right that people such as grandmothers and other family members should have.
“If a grandmother files a petition in court alleging dependency … I’ve come to the conclusion under the juvenile code, that grandparent has a right to be represented by a lawyer appointed by the county if they’re indigent,” he said. “I’ve kind of always felt that way, but I’ve dodged it for a while.”
Some, Key said, feel that if a third party is applying for indigent representation, then they have no business even trying to care for a child. He scoffed at that notion and said in Troup County — where, according to the U.S. Census, 22 percent of adults and 33 percent of children live at or below the federal poverty line — families find ways to make situations work, especially when the best interest of a child is at stake.
“Some say if you’re indigent, you can’t care for a child,” he told commissioners. “But I’m ashamed of that. This county is full of people … who live in poverty and care for their children. They bring families together and they do that. It’s not a good enough excuse to not spend money.”
Key’s request is set to be considered 9 a.m. Tuesday during County Commission’s regular meeting in the Troup County Government Center, 100 Ridley Ave.
Tyler H. Jones is a reporter for LaGrange Daily News. He may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2155.