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W.Va. child abuse lawyers earning decades-old pay

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Those with one of the toughest jobs in the West Virginia legal system -- attorneys appointed to help judges make good decisions for abused and neglected children -- are earning wages that haven't gone up since the 1980s.

It's a demanding and time-consuming job, but at $45 an hour for out-of-court work and $65 an hour for courtroom appearances, one lawyer says, it's essentially "charity work.''

"There isn't a lawyer out there working for that,'' says Catherine Munster, who's represented children for two decades and trains other attorneys through a course on child protection at the West Virginia University law school. "Even for people like me, who were significantly invested in doing the work, I couldn't do it for a living. There's no way you can do it full time.''

Court officials agree and say they will propose legislation in February that would raise compensation to $75 and $90 an hour for attorneys paid through Public Defender Services, at a total cost of about $4.8 million.

A similar bill went nowhere earlier this year and likely will face resistance from budget-conscious lawmakers, says Lisa Tackett, director of family court services for the state Supreme Court. But it's one she says court officials think is worth fighting for.

Court-appointed attorneys are subject to training requirements and guidelines that formalize their role as independent investigators, she says.

They have deadlines for written reports and rules for when and where to interview children. They must study a family's needs and the possibility of placing children with relatives. They have to consider the child's educational stability.

"It's so important to pay them for the job that we believe is one of the most important jobs an attorney can do,'' Tackett says, particularly when the court already has raised pay for lawyers who represent children in family and circuit court cases that don't involve abuse and neglect.

Those lawyers are paid by the court system, not public defender services, Tackett says. As of July 1, their wages jumped from $45 to $80 an hour for out-of-court work, and from $65 to $100 an hour for in-court work.

According to May 2011 figures from the U.S. Bureau for Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage for a lawyer is $62.74 -- about $17 more than the West Virginia abuse and neglect attorneys are getting. But attorneys who specialize in certain fields often charge far more.

The West Virginia State Bar says there's no record-keeping that would help generate a state-specific average, but retiring Supreme Court Justice Thomas McHugh says $45 is too low to entice many lawyers.

"So hopefully, at some point,'' he says, "the Legislature will see fit to get those numbers up.''

McHugh, who has watched the child abuse and neglect situation grow with the explosion of drug abuse, says he's not trying to line lawyers' pockets. He's trying to invest in the future.

"We've got to start trying to help the children right now,'' he says, "or those children become the abusers or the criminals.

"In this case, money really would help,'' McHugh argues. "What is the most fundamental thing we have to worry about? It has to be our children. That's our state. That's our future.''

The court has invested in improving the performance of children's attorneys: It spent more than $50,000 this year to hold training sessions in Charleston and Morgantown for nearly 800 lawyers who had to attend to be eligible for the higher pay.

But Tackett says it's a challenge to sell legislators on the importance of their work, partly because abuse and neglect cases are typically confidential.

"So we can talk in generalities about what's going on with our children and why there's a need to compensate these attorneys ... and sometimes they will see some of the worst cases hit the paper,'' she says. "But in these types of instances we can't really put faces with these requests. Only the legal community really understands how bad it is out there.''

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Roman Prezioso says that no matter how worthy, any bill with a hefty price tag "would really be problematic'' in the coming budget year because the state is wrestling with a $400 million revenue shortfall.

Though the Marion County Democrat is not familiar with the discrepancy in how children's attorneys are paid, he says Public Defender Services already "consumes a tremendous amount of money'' and usually requires annual supplemental funding.

Medicaid, he says, is the No. 1 challenge for legislators.

"We're not adding people or expanding services, but we're $185 million short, and we have to plug that first and foremost,'' Prezioso says. Although cases involving children are important, he adds, "we don't want anyone to have to go without health care, especially the indigent.''

But Munster, the attorney who began her career as a social worker in the 1970s, says representing children is "a tremendous amount of work and a tremendous amount of time.''

And if payment is a way that society shows what someone's work is worth, she argues, "I think it's a strong indictment of how much we really value our children.''


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