RACINE, Wis. — With more children ending up in foster care due to parents struggling with mental illness and addiction, among other issues, some have said the situation has risen to a state of crisis.
Because of the crisis, last year Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, of Rochester, formed a task force to devise solutions. One of the laws that came out of that task force goes into effect today in Racine County.
The law will change the way certain court cases involving children are represented. Some are hopeful this will help keep more families together or help them reunite faster.
Child in Need of Protection or Services (CHIPS) cases, are court cases involving the general well-being of children. Previously the law had stated that the Office of the State Public Defender may represent children in CHIPS cases, but not parents.
Act 253 will allow the Office of the State Public Defender to also represent parents in CHIPS cases in Racine, Kenosha, Brown, Outagamie, and Winnebago counties. This program will continue for the next three years.
"It provides authority and funding for the state public defender's office to appoint counsel for indigent parents in a five-county pilot," Sam Christensen, the Racine County clerk of courts, told The Journal Times .
The pilot program requires the Office of the State Public Defender to keep track of the impact their representation has on the process.
"We look forward to working with the judges and county human services staff to ensure that the pilot is able to demonstrate the impact it has on these cases," said Adrienne Moore, regional attorney manager for the Racine Region of Public Defenders Office.
Moore said the impact to Racine and Kenosha trial offices will be "significant." Last year, Moore said, there were nearly 400 CHIPS cases filed between the two counties.
Prior to the law change, parents were required to pay for lawyers in CHIPS matters or go without representation. If they could not afford a lawyer, the county could assist some parents with the cost of appointing a lawyer, but this was not routinely done, as CHIPS cases do not require parental representation.
With the implementation of the pilot program, the public defender's office will also be able to represent parents, saving the county money.
To handle the extra load, Moore said the public defender's offices in the pilot counties will need to find private bar attorneys to handle some representation for parents.
"I believe there were many parents who just went along with CHIPS actions because they did not have money to retain an attorney to advocate for them in these cases," Moore said. "I also believe that an attorney will be able to ensure that reasonable conditions for reunification are placed on parents should CHIPS actions be found to be appropriate."
Moore said she is happy the Legislature included Racine as part of the pilot program.
"We hope that the work on these cases will increase the number of families that are reunified so that the need to terminate parental rights will be reduced," Moore said. "There will likely be other costs reductions, like foster care and appointment of counsel at county expense, that could impact county budgets."
An AP Member Exchange shared by The Journal Times.