Juvenile court cases involving Child in Need of Protection petitions can be excruciating for children and parents. Now, they're proving costly to counties, thanks to the budget shortfall that has the state's courts scrambling.

The estimated 1,200 hearings a year involving Child in Need of Protection or Services (CHIPS) petitions in Anoka County will cost the county an estimated $160,000 to $180,000 -- money that was not previously budgeted, it was announced at Tuesday's county board meeting.

The money would be used to provide legal representation for parents -- a service that will replace the public defenders who represented parents in CHIPS petitions before the state's public defenders office stopped doing so this summer.

Minnesota law provides that a parent going through the juvenile court on a CHIPS petition has the right to an attorney. If the parent can't afford a lawyer, the court appoints one.

The State Board of Public Defense, battered by a $3.8 million budget shortfall, decided in June that counties should pay for lawyers for poor adults who are losing parental rights or are otherwise involved in cases in which children need help, often known as CHIPS cases.

A Minnesota statute says that counties are obligated to pay for those court-appointed lawyers, said Jerry Soma, Anoka County's Human Services Division manager. And in many of the cases, both parents, often divorced, need legal help. With 170 new CHIPS petitions coming before Anoka County courts each year and between 40 to 70 termination of parental rights hearings annually, the county voted Tuesday to hire two private firms to handle the bulk of the cases for parents in need. The Anoka law firm of Randall and Goodrich will be paid $5,000 a month and attorney David Cossi will be the second primary lawyer, at $4,500 a month.

The county also will develop contracts with five other lawyers at a rate of $75 per hour.

Soma said that each county is handling the budget crunch affecting CHIPS petitions differently. Hennepin County, which had been paying for some of the public defenders' costs, is exempt from the cutbacks in the public defenders' office, he said. Soma said he has heard that one rural county in the northern part of the state may refuse to provide public assistance to parents involved with CHIPS petitions, regardless of the law.

Rhonda Sivarajah, one of two Anoka County commissioners who served on a committee that outlined the county's deal to provide legal aid, bemoaned the shifting of state responsibilities to the counties. But, she added, "Children are vulnerable. Families are a priority. We weren't going to abandon that responsibility."

The board's approval was unanimous.

A $19 million budget shortfall for Minnesota courts is projected for the current fiscal year. Last month, the Minnesota Judicial Council voted to submit a request to Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Legislature for an additional $54 million by the next biennium.

Jim Kordiak, the other Anoka County commissioner involved with committee discussions concerning lawyers and CHIPS petitions, did not mask his irritation with the state.

He said the state was "shifting their costs to us." He complained that the budget cuts are "only hurting our own court system."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419