Our Opinion: Child welfare legal fees need to be increased

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The Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services is a government-funded agency that provides public defenders for indigent clients. In total, it comprises roughly 500 staff attorneys and 3,000 private attorneys spread among its various divisions, of which one is the Children and Family Law Division. While state law mandates that in child welfare cases, both children and indigent parents have a right to representation, there has been a shortage of the specially trained attorneys necessary for this demanding kind of legal work — a shortage that has reached emergency levels in Western Massachusetts.

On its face, therefore, a move by the state House of Representatives to include an hourly rate hike for children and family law attorneys who take cases in that part of the state would be welcome — if the rates were still not so woefully inadequate.

Part of the problem arises from the fact that in child welfare cases involving the Department of Children and Families, everyone is entitled to a lawyer — the parents as well as the children. If there is a therapist involved, there is an attorney for that. Sometimes there simply aren't enough lawyers in the pool to handle all the work. Specifically, the bill that passed would enable the CPCS to declare an emergency in a particular county if there were a demonstrated shortage of such trained lawyers, authorizing it to hike its rate from $55 per hour to $75 per hour. Such fees are hardly enough to cover the cost of keeping the lights on. Overhead for attorneys can include office space, staff, liability insurance, IT, licensing fees, health insurance and student loans, among other expenses. Ultimately, a far lower-paying job can provide more take-home pay.

"There's a lot of stuff you don't get compensated for," Katherine Bierwas, a Pittsfield attorney whose practice consists mostly child welfare work, but who must diversify into other specialties in order to survive professionally, told The Eagle. "I'm committed to children," Ms. Bierwas said. "I would love not to have to do probate work — I'd do just (child welfare law) if I could afford to. It's very, very difficult work that most people want nothing to do with." She added that lawyers like her who take on such cases do it for the well-being of their vulnerable clients. "You're doing this for love. There are ramifications for children that last a lifetime."

The state is indeed fortunate that there are attorneys who are willing to involve themselves in this most tough, tangled and non-remunerative of legal specialties out of passion, and if such caring people did not exist, the shortage would probably be much worse than it is. That is all the more reason why the House (and Senate, in earlier legislation) — which should be applauded for addressing the issue at all — needs to acknowledge that there are few matters more deserving of state interest and the expenditure of its tax dollars than the welfare of its children who face dangerous domestic situations. The hike is a step in the right direction, but the fee remains paltry. Were it raised to more realistic levels, this lamentable shortage would certainly ease.

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