MOUNT VERNON — With the number of abuse, neglect, and dependency cases still on the increase, the probate/juvenile budget is being stretched thin.
On Thursday, Probate/Juvenile Judge Jay Nixon asked the county commissioners for an additional $40,000 to cover the cost.
A guardian ad litem (GAL) represents the child's interests in abuse, neglect, and dependency cases. Nixon said that previously, the court appointed GALs for abuse cases only. Abuse cases make up about 10 percent of the court's abuse/neglect/dependency caseload.
“Now, we're following the law in neglect cases as well, which increases it to 90 to 95 percent of cases,” he said. “The more people we have involved looking for the best interest of the child, the more information I have to make a good decision.”
The State of Ohio, through the Ohio Public Defender Office, reimburses counties for GAL costs. Gov. Mike DeWine's budget bill set reimbursement at 70 percent for 2020-21, up from the current 42 to 44 percent. The higher reimbursement rate is retroactive to July 1, the start of the state's fiscal year.
“The real good news is that Dewine's goal is to fund that at 100 percent,” said Nixon. “I think they will tweak it and two to three years from now we will be at 100 percent.”
The commissioners were doubtful.
“We don't mean to sound skeptical, but the Ohio Public Defender was always supposed to fund them at 100 percent, or close to 100 percent. It's been around 40 percent to 45 percent,” said Commissioner Thom Collier. “But we are excited that this is a possibility.”
Commissioner Teresa Bemiller said reimbursement has actually averaged around 30 percent over the past years.
Nixon said that regardless of what the reimbursement rate is, he plans to pursue a GAL volunteer program. CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) volunteers can serve in place of or in addition to GALs.
“I think we have enough interest in the community to get a volunteer,” Nixon told the commissioners.
The rate for GALs is $50 an hour out of court and $60 in court. Looking ahead to next year, Nixon said that if the reimbursement rate goes to 100 percent, he will ask the commissioners to increase the rate to $75.
“I understand the logic that is behind it, but that's not the way it works out,” Collier cautioned Nixon.
He said that all counties would pursue that viewpoint, which means that the reimbursement rate will go down to handle the additional cost.
“I think everybody is buying into the reimbursement thing, and we as commissioners have just seen too much,” added Bemiller.
The commissioners initially allocated $507,410 for the 2019 probate/juvenile budget. Earlier in the year, they appropriated another $21,243 to cover Nixon's request for an additional part-time probation officer.
“We've had a lot of high-number cases in the family counsel line for mothers who needed counsel,” said Diane Randall, court administrator, about 2019 costs.
Nixon added that permanent custody cases had accumulated at the beginning of the year due to the transition in judges.
“Overall, abuse, neglect, and dependency cases are still increasing, but I don't think family counsel and public defender counsel fees will be as high [next year],” he said.