By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Ad Litem Alibi?
Harris County juvenile court judge and Texas Protective and Regulatory Services (TPRS) officials are on a collision course with regard to the judge's tactics in trying to speed up the adoption of children in the custody of the state agency. Judge Pat Shelton is critical of the slow pace of adoptions here, and has begun appointing ad litem attorneys to monitor the performance of child-welfare workers in finding adoptive parents for their charges.
TPRS counsel Rock Owens contends the judge's actions are illegal and unnecessary, and amount to giving favored attorneys ad litem fees when there is no real legal work to be done. In a first round of appointments last December, Shelton farmed out most of the 20 cases to attorneys George Clevenger and Evan Glick. Clevenger got 11 cases and Glick got six.
Attorney Clevenger is one of the larger contributors listed on Judge Shelton's most recent campaign-finance report, filed last week. From March 1 to the end of June, Clevenger gave two contributions to the Shelton campaign totaling $1,250.
As The Insider went to press, the judge was considering opening another batch of old cases for which he may appoint ad litems. One courthouse observer estimates that, at $150 to $250 each for a simple pro forma appearance, participating attorneys could reap several thousand dollars for minimal legal work.
Owens, an assistant county attorney, says he will object to having any money paid to the new ad litems appointed by Shelton in cases in which final decrees had already been entered. According to Owens, the Texas Family Code allows judges to continue the services of ad litems appointed before TPRS assumes managing conservatorship, but does not provide for a judge reopening a case to appoint a new attorney for the child.
Owens says the judge's stated motives in trying to speed up adoptions of children in foster care are laudable, but misplaced.
"His explanation is that TPRS is too slow in going through the adoption process," says Owens, "but there isn't a thing that a lawyer can do, in a legal sense, that would speed that up."
Judge Shelton insists he has the power to appoint lawyers to represent children and ride herd on child-welfare workers. "The adoption time frame can be speeded up by somebody to aid and assist TPRS in doing their job, " says Shelton, who says children are languishing for years in foster care when homes are available. He figures lawyers can provide the extra impetus to help a child in custody find permanent parents. "The case is not closed till adoption," comments the judge. "I'm required to review every six months the efforts these agencies make in pushing for adoption. Who is looking at them to make sure they do their job? Nobody." Shelton says he appoints ad litems as needed outside observers in the child-placement process.
The judge met with TPRS officials last week in his court chambers and claims they could not provide statistics to explain what he feels are excessively long stays in custody by adoptable children. Owens counters that the meeting was more of "a setup" to allow the judge to justify his policies, and that TPRS would need time to compile the statistics requested by Shelton.
According to Owens, there is no easily determined average time for an adoption because some children have medical or psychological conditions that make finding new parents very unlikely.
The judge says the agency itself claims all children are adoptable, and he intends to press for the data as a basis for improving adoptive services in Harris County for state wards. He also vows to continue reopening cases and appointing ad litems if he feels a child's situation merits scrutiny.
TPRS Austin spokeswoman Marla Sheely finds the timing of Shelton's push curious, particularly since recently passed state legislation has many of the same goals as those stated by the judge. According to Sheely, TPRS has already sent a team of specialists to Houston to work with local authorities in streamlining the process of getting a child from state custody to a new home.
"We respect where we think the judge is coming from, a concern over what's happening with these kids," comments Sheely, who adds diplomatically that "we're just addressing our concerns in a different way than he is."
If nothing else, Judge Shelton has found a good political issue for use in his current re-election campaign against Democrat Theresa Ramirez, and some nice ad litem appointments to keep a few supporters happy.
It's not every day that the secretary of a political party calls to complain about the behavior of one of the candidates on the ticket, but that's exactly what Democratic official Francisco Sanchez did last week when he phoned The Insider.
Sanchez was irked that state Representative Debra Danburg had suggested to his boss, party chairman Sue Schechter, that he be removed as secretary for refusing to allow his name to be used for an upcoming Hispanic fundraiser for veteran District 137 Rep Danburg. Sanchez says he hadn't refused, but had only asked that Danburg call him back so he could discuss the matter.