In 2017, there were 25,789 confirmed victims of child abuse in Bexar County. When the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services files a suit to terminate parental rights, the court must appoint an attorney ad litem and a guardian ad litem to represent the best interests of the child.
On a recent weekday, in a courtroom on the third floor of the historic Bexar County Courthouse, a woman in the gallery is quietly wiping tears from her face. At one counsel table, an assistant district attorney and caseworker are responding to a judge’s questions. At tables on either side of them sit court-appointed attorneys representing parents and children.
The judge ponders each answer, in no rush despite the long docket. He admonishes them: “If we don’t have the guts to make a decision, then we need to get out of here and go make wills.”
In a county that leads the state in per-capita child abuse victims, the decisions made in Children’s Court have far-reaching consequences. In 2017, there were 5,291 Bexar County children in Child Protective Service's "substitute care," such as foster or kinship care, compared to 4,648 the year before.
But the number of attorneys who have chosen to serve in the county's Children's Court has dwindled to about 100.
“We are a close-knit group because of the nature of the cases – we see some horrible stuff each day,” said attorney Christine Hortick, president of the Children’s Court Attorneys Association (CCAA) in San Antonio. A graduate of the St. Mary’s University School of Law, Hortick has been serving in Children’s Court for 10 years, representing either parents or children in about 30 cases a year.
“I don’t know if the general public realizes how much abuse is going on,” she said. “Financial stress, too many kids, drugs ... In most cases, there’s at least one parent doing drugs.”
Those issues make the job a mix of social work and legal practice, she said, with many complexities. Yet Bexar County Children's Court attorneys are the lowest-paid court-appointed attorneys in the state, working under a fee schedule that has not changed since 1984, according to Hortick.
To be added to the court-appointed attorney list, or "appointment wheel" as they call it, licensed attorneys must take 40 hours of required training annually, spend hours in court observing hearings, and keep up with their yearly continuing legal education. New applicants are assigned a mentor.
"But we don't have a lot of attorneys wanting to get on this wheel because of the pay," Hortick said. "There's going to be a big gap because a good percentage of those 100 attorneys are getting closer to retirement age ... attorneys who have been practicing a long time.
"And at some point, attorneys drop off. Some will say, 'I'm done with the lack of pay.' Others will have a horrible case that does them in, and they've burned out."
The job pays a flat rate $150 for the first and last hearings of a case, proceedings that can last anywhere from 10 minutes to three hours, and $100 for all other hearings. Attorneys are paid $75 for staffings (meetings with all parties in the case), and $20 per hour for visits with children. There's no compensation for the other accompanying tasks – reviewing home studies and medical reports, preparing for statutory hearings and trials.
Typical private attorneys' fees range between $100 and $400 per hour, depending on the attorney's experience, operating expenses, and the practice's location.
Between Oct. 1, 2016, and Sept. 30, 2017, the County paid 139 ad litems just under $3 million for working 3,085 cases during that year. Paychecks ranged from $100 paid to an attorney who billed for one case and $64,745 for another who worked a total of 147 cases.
“We don’t do it for the money for sure," Hortick said. "We could be billing hourly for another kind of case and making a heck of a lot more. But people who do these cases want to make some sort of difference in people’s lives. I can't think of another reason why you would do it.”
While the abuse involved in some cases shocked her at first, it doesn't anymore, she said. “People are capable of horrible things, and it happens all over the place.”
Yet some cases bring optimism. One of Hortick’s first cases involved a dad who was serving jail time and a mother who was ordered to “work services,” which often means undergoing drug rehab, attending parenting classes, holding down a job, and getting stable housing. She did not comply. But the father was released from incarceration, stayed clean, and eventually gained full custody of his son.
“The most important thing we do, whether representing a parent or child, is we try to work together to fix a situation,” Hortick said. “You want kids to be safe no matter what. But, if we can, the ultimate goal is to have the family reunited. And in most cases, it is [possible].”
In others, it's not. Three years ago, Hortick said she represented a young mother whose six children had been removed from her home. The mom quit using drugs, and found stable housing and a job, as ordered in her service plan.
Just when Hortick thought the woman was going to get her children back, the case fell apart, and after a three-day trial, the mother became so discouraged, she relapsed and lost parental rights to not only the six children, but a new baby as well. It was a disheartening experience for Hortick, who had spent many hours on the case.
“It is a lot to take on,” said attorney Trisha Morales Padia, who has worked in the system since becoming licensed five years ago. “There’s a core of people who have been there as long as I have, but a lot of people come and go.
"The pay is always a big issue. [Plus] the constant battling with [Child Protective Services], long waits in court, and most of us don’t just do Children’s Court."
Padia also switches hats often, representing parents in one case and children in another.
Both need good advocates, Hortick said. So with concern over the dwindling list of attorneys registering for Children’s Court, the CCAA has recently addressed the pay issue with Bexar County commissioners and judges, requesting fair compensation for the specialized representation they provide.
The group has asked for $250 for first and final hearings, $150 for all other hearings ($450 for all-day hearings), $150 for staffings, $75 per hour of time spent on the case outside of court, and compensation for mileage.
Attorney George Willingham formed CCAA in 2003 – the first such organization in the country – at a time when 225th District Court Judge Peter Sakai was seeking an additional judge for Children’s Court. “I felt we wouldn’t have as much a voice as an individual as an organization would,” said Willingham, a 33-year veteran of Children's Court.
When not advocating for clients or the group, CCAA members meet monthly to exchange information and support one another.
Although he no longer accepts appointments of criminal defendants, Willingham says he has never considered leaving his post in Children's Court. “With these cases, you can have a bigger impact with both parents and with children,” he said.
But during that time, he has witnessed a lot of change, including the 2003 renovation of the Courthouse’s third floor to be more child-friendly and sensitive to the needs of abused and neglected children. Overseen by Sakai with judges Richard Garcia and Charles Montemayor also on the bench, the Bexar County Children's Court is considered a model courtroom nationally.
More change is to come within the system itself. In May, Texas legislators passed two bills overhauling how the Department of Family and Protective Services works with and finds homes for abused and neglected children. Senate Bill 11, in particular, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law on May 31, allows the State to contract with nonprofits to oversee children in foster care, adoptive homes, and relatives' homes.
Details of this privatization model haven't been worked out, but Children's Court attorneys say the plan has many feeling uneasy. It may make the attorney's role even more critical because of the potential for conflicts of interest if financial incentives begin to influence sensitive decisions.
In the meantime, attorneys, caseworkers, and the court cope with weighty decisions balancing child safety and parental rights. On a recent day in the courtroom where termination of a parental rights was being considered, Montemayor called on everyone to work harder toward family reunification.
"We have to foster the relationship between the parent and child," he said. "We can't operate as an adoption agency. We have to make Herculean efforts to try [to reunite families] ... God forbid [something happens] – it's risky. Every placement I make is stomach-churning."
It's understandable that court hearings would get emotional, even confrontational.
"We have to bend where we can," Willingham said, "to work out what, in the long run, is the best interest of the child.”