Greene County, a rural stretch of central New York, is home to few lawyers—and even fewer who take on time-consuming and emotionally wrenching child welfare cases. So Monica Kenny-Keff, who runs a solo family law practice in Catskill, not far from where she grew up in the village of Tannersville, often juggles an unmanageable number of clients. Her clients are poor: Nearly all rely on the county’s indigenous defense system to provide free counsel.
Defending indigenous clients in a rural area comes with particular challenges. Greene County has little public transportation—on some routes a bus might come around once a week—and some of Kenny-Keff’s clients don’t have a car, which makes scheduling in-person meetings difficult. Remote communication can be tricky too: The county’s rolling hills tend to swallow up cell signals, and Internet service is often spotty. Kenny-Keff makes herself available “pretty much 24/7,” because the needs of people embroiled in family court can’t be neatly confined to business hours.
Parents facing accusations of neglect or abuse in New York have a legal right to counsel, but the state leaves it to each county to figure out how to make good on that promise. The quality and depth of legal help available to an indigent parent varies across the state, depending on each county’s financial capacity to provide free legal services and its political will to do so. Rural counties often fall short on both counts.
And the program is getting worse: The number of family lawyers has precipitously declined in rural counties across New York over the past decade, data obtained by New York Focus shows. That has left rural parents with increasingly inadequate legal representation, which can lead to unwarranted foster care placements and even permanent loss of parental rights.
Lawyers Triaging Cases
Indigent defense in New York state is provided through three different schemes. A county can establish a public defense office, contract with a nonprofit provider, such as Legal Aid, or hire private attorneys to act as ad-hoc “assigned counsel.” Most counties use a hybrid of those arrangements, and all but a handful of rural counties rely on assigned counsel to defend at least some indigent parents in family court.