The lawyers are scurrying inside the Juvenile Court building in Mesa on a recent morning like shoppers on a last-minute run.
They move from the appointment counter toward their courtrooms, lugging briefcases and working BlackBerries, faces scrunched up in multitasking concentration.
Small groups are milling outside the eight courtrooms, waiting for the start of delinquency and dependency hearings to which they're connected, most often as participants.
The delinquency hearings concern children under age 18 who are accused of breaking the law (though kids charged with serious crimes can be transferred under Arizona law to adult court).
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsTue., Nov. 1, 7:00pm
Phoenix Suns vs. Portland Trail Blazers
TicketsWed., Nov. 2, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators
TicketsThu., Nov. 3, 7:00pm
Arizona State University Sun Devils Hockey vs. University of Michigan
TicketsFri., Nov. 4, 7:05pm
Dependency court focuses on children reportedly abused or neglected by their parents or guardians to the extent that state child-protection officials or others have recommended legal intervention.
Those cases typically involve parents who run the gamut of the simply pathetic (druggies who don't know up from down) to the malevolent, and children badly in need of a fresh start, with or without their birth parents.
One of the lawyers, a middle-aged woman in a flowing purple dress, bellows the name of her client.
"That's me," says a diminutive woman with stringy blond hair, rising from her hard, plastic chair to shake her new attorney's hand.
"Hi," the lawyer says. "I didn't know if you were going to make it. I've been trying to call you. Good. Let's go talk somewhere real quick."
Minutes later, a bailiff enters the hall from a courtroom and calls the next case.
The attorney in the purple dress and her scruffy client step into court, soon followed by another attorney and a glaring, heavily tattooed man who removes a ball cap that says, perhaps ironically, "World's Greatest Dad."
Had their hearing concerned a juvenile delinquent, anyone from the public could have observed the proceedings.
But this is a dependency case, an entirely different animal in Arizona courthouses when it comes to openness.
As in Las Vegas, what goes on inside those courtrooms usually stays there.
Seventeen states in the past decade opened their dependency hearings to the public, shining a light on an important process that long has operated in a shroud of secrecy.
But dependency cases in Arizona are closed to the public unless the parents, guardians or the sitting judge elect to open them. Dependency courts in Arizona remain a secret society that exists amid one of our most traditionally wide-open institutions the county courthouse.
The man and the woman reappear in the lobby about 10 minutes after they had entered the Mesa courtroom. Neither looks pleased.
The woman huddles with her new lawyer. The tattooed man sticks his ball cap back on his head and quickly heads to the elevator.
The two lawyers who represented their respective clients at the short hearing each will bill Maricopa County's Office of Contract Counsel $1,000 for their services.
Almost without exception, these and the other attorneys who work dependency cases under contract with the county will get paid in full, whether they do the bare minimum of work or go the extra yard for their clients children or parents.
That is the going rate for private attorneys during the first year of a dependency court case. In many instances, a judge also will appoint another attorney as guardian ad litem (GAL) to provide additional support to one of the parties, usually the child.
That's another $1,000 for the first year of work.
Attorneys usually have to appear in court every 60 days during that first year, for status hearings that rarely last more than a few minutes.
During the second year and every year after, attorneys for the parents and the GAL may bill $250 annually (the child's attorney gets to bill $400) if a case continues, which it usually does for at least a few years.
For a child, becoming a ward of the state means a trip into the netherworld of foster care, reunification with and separation from their parents, adoption, and variations on those themes.
At first blush, the money $1,000 here, $250 there may not sound like much.
But a New Times examination of financial reports and other public records shows that juvenile dependencies are the source of the county's most lucrative public-law franchise for a small group of private attorneys.
These days, most of the public discussion about Maricopa County's legal world has concerned the death penalty, and how an overwhelmed criminal-justice system is threatening to collapse under the weight of 149 pending capital cases.
County Attorney Andrew Thomas and others have suggested that the criminal-defense bar has been making the big bucks on the backs of county taxpayers, all the while stalling the death penalty proceedings as long as possible.
Remarkably, though, the highest-paid dependency lawyers, with rare exception, have been making more money than peers in private practice who litigate death-penalty cases under their county contracts.
The undisputed champion of dependency lawyers for calendar year 2006 was Chandler attorney Patricia O'Connor, who collected $385,305 for handling hundreds of juvenile dependency and delinquency cases.
O'Connor collected more from Maricopa County last year than Bob Storrs, Dan Raynak and Herman Alcantar, three private defense lawyers who work death-penalty cases for the county, earned among them in 2006.
Only one criminal-defense attorney under contract with the county collected more than $200,000 in 2006, according to billings provided to New Times: Phoenix lawyer Nathaniel Carr, who was paid $354,800.
Another financial comparison: A Child Protective Services caseworker and a lawyer from the Attorney General's Office assigned to work dependency cases make less than $100,000 a year combined.
Superior Court judges make about $135,000 a year, which is slightly more than the annual salaries of the county's most experienced homicide prosecutors and public defenders.
"It's presumptively an issue when a private attorney working as an independent contractor makes more money than the highest-paid prosecutor or defender," says Peter Ozanne, assistant county manager for criminal justice. "That, among other things, including the huge caseloads that some of these dependency attorneys are carrying, is going to stop."
As of now, however, the not-so-secret avenue to success as a juvenile dependency lawyer in Maricopa County is quantity, not quality.
Someone inside the legal system recently dubbed the busiest (and, not coincidentally, the biggest moneymakers) of the county's dependency lawyers "case whores," an ugly phrase that bears analysis.
Obviously, it suggests that attorneys are taking on every client who comes their way because the money's so good. And the public record confirms the nasty sentiment.
Attorney O'Connor was able to earn almost $400,000 in 2006 and is on track for an equally lucrative 2007 because of her sheer number of clients.
A sole practitioner, O'Connor took on exactly 500 new juvenile cases last year, according to a spreadsheet provided to New Times by the Office of Contract Counsel.
Those cases came on top of the 789 cases that the county claims she had pending at the start of 2006.
According to the spreadsheet, O'Connor started this year with 860 cases still pending.
"You've got to be kidding me," one Superior Court judge said in a typical response when told of O'Connor's earnings and caseload. "There aren't enough hours in a day, are there?"
But O'Connor says her records (collated, she says, by her computer-expert husband) tell a different story. She says she's working 468 cases, including 316 dependencies, which she admits is a full load, but not nearly what the county has in its computer.
"I know that it's a lot of cases," she says, "but I don't get bar complaints, or complaints from the judges or, most important to me, my clients. I hope that fact comes into this discussion."
By all accounts, O'Connor is a real pro at dependency work, a team player known for taking on cases at a moment's notice and who, indeed, does get high marks for her work from the judges contacted by New Times.
"Ms. O'Connor is strong advocate for her clients, and she always does what's needed, " says Judge Louis Araneta, who works exclusively on juvenile cases out of the Mesa courthouse. "There have been several instances when I have needed to appoint an attorney right at that moment, so I tell my bailiff to go out in the lobby and see if there are any OCAC (Office of Contract Counsel) lawyers out there. I don't play favorites, but Patty has a large caseload and needs to be at the courthouse a lot, so she is out there a lot and so she has gotten many of those appointments."
O'Connor employs two full-time social workers and other assistants to keep up with her intense schedule, which means an average seven-day, 80-hour work week, she says.
But by virtue of her position at the top of the dependency court money tree, O'Connor has become a lightning rod in a part of the legal system that previously has operated under cover.
"At this point, I'm not looking into anything fraudulent that may be going on with any specific attorney," says the county's Peter Ozanne, "but there definitely has been a systemic problem, both with our inability, because of the lack of staffing, to assure quality control, and with the judges who continue to assign a handful of people case after case after case."
Rich Scherb, a Phoenix attorney also with a juvenile law practice, notes, "It becomes a huge, huge burden if you're carrying dozens of dependency cases, much less hundreds, like a lot of my colleagues. Once you get beyond a certain number, it just becomes impossible to do your job correctly. I can't believe that the powers-that-be in this county have let them get away it."
Scherb himself is not doing so badly as a contract juvenile delinquency and dependency attorney in neighboring Pinal County. Records from that county show it paid him $183,033 in 2006.
Business in Maricopa County also continues to boom for the dependency bar's biggest guns. In the first three months of this year, the county paid Patricia O'Connor a little more than $100,000.
"I didn't make up the pay scale, and I don't beg for cases," she tells New Times. "I just say, 'You got a case, I'll do it.' Call me on Christmas Day or any other holiday, I'll be there. My goal [with] this work is to maybe save a life or two, and to maybe give some kids a chance. It's what I'm about.
"So go right ahead and put the target on me for making the most money. It may be hard to believe, but I'm not in this for the money . . . I live and breathe this stuff."
The relative handful of Valley attorneys who devote the bulk of their practice to juvenile dependency law rarely make it into the news.
Dependency lawyers long have embraced the adage that defines their little slice of the legal system: out of sight, out of mind.
The closed nature of dependency proceedings had made that easier for the attorneys to lay low. (Supporters of keeping dependency hearings closed usually cite privacy concerns, and fears of "re-victimizing" the children involved. However, positive examples, such as Minnesota, which opened all of its juvenile hearings in 2002, suggest that such fears are unfounded.)
According to Mark Kennedy, the outgoing director of the Office of Contract Counsel, the extent of the large paydays to dependency lawyers began to reveal itself a few years ago.
"This is something that we have been grappling with for a while," says Kennedy, who has been in charge of overseeing the dependency and delinquency contracts, among other duties. "I am not unhappy that the general public is finally going to know about it."
Kennedy says the county is determined to put a stop to what he calls "the juvenile dependency gravy train.
"I must admit that I fell into a trap. Until I became aware of what was going on with these lawyers, including the money they're making, I assumed that giving an attorney the benefit of the doubt when he or she was working on behalf of kids was the right thing to do," he says.
"Shame on me. Many of these people essentially have created annuities for themselves because dependencies can stay open forever, or at least until a child turns 18. And let's say Mom has a new child, which isn't at all unusual. Mom's lawyer will represent her in the new case or cases, year after year after year, and will continue to get paid for it."
The blunt-spoken bureaucrat, who is an attorney and former FBI agent, likens the dependency bar "to a bunch of monks from a smallish order who perform their own 'Gregorian chants,' their own unique legal language."
But fancy courtroom language doesn't make it death penalty work, Kennedy says, adding that "it sure as hell doesn't mean that these people should be reeling in the money like they have been."
Though the stakes in dependency cases are high, the script learned by judges, Child Protective Services caseworkers, lawyers, and clients at hearings is repeated practically verbatim in every case.
Unfortunately for many laypeople, the terms used in dependency court often are arcane Latin words abound, as do acronyms and incomprehensible titles of proceedings (such as the Initial Permanency Planning Hearing).
Judges and court commissioners assigned to handle dependencies often place children into foster care (sometimes for extended periods), order family reunification services (by law, judges must take pains to try to "reunify" families, even when the parents clearly are incapable of caring for themselves), return kids to their parents' custody, or, after a long process, allow adoptions to proceed and order the termination of parental rights.
In dependency court, as elsewhere in Maricopa County's sprawling legal system, any litigant surely can catch a lousy break, a raw deal. Maybe a down-on-her-luck mom undeservedly will lose custody of her children for a stretch, or a child will be placed in a rotten foster-care setting.
(Between April and September 2006, according to a report filed by the Arizona Department of Economic Security, just 90 severance cases were completed in Maricopa County. All but one of those ended with termination of parental rights, with the exception being a case that DES withdrew before trial.)
Janelle McEachern (pronounced mick-can), another of the county's most prominent (translation: very busy, very well-paid) dependency attorneys, concedes that her work "isn't rocket science, and it does take more in the way of organizational skills than probably anything else. But that doesn't mean that a lawyer who is experienced in this part of the law isn't more valuable to a client and to the system by knowing how to streamline and keep things moving along than a greenhorn."
That dependency law isn't "rocket science" is one of the few points about which McEachern and Mark Kennedy at the Office of Contract Counsel seem to agree.
"The language and the process you see inside dependency court may be unknown to most people, including other lawyers who don't do that kind of work," says Kennedy, "but it's pretty basic when you cut through everything. I know firsthand that these cases generally aren't that complicated."
By that, Kennedy is referring to his recent work on about 20 cases as a dependency attorney in Gila County, whose seat is in Globe. He says he took on the extra work "so I could see how these kinds of cases really work, and what a lawyer has to do to serve a client well and maybe get a decent outcome that's right for everyone."
Kennedy says he's offended by the first-time "meet-and-greets" of attorneys and their clients, similar to the one at the Mesa courthouse described at the start of this story.
"If you're getting paid a couple of hundred of thousand of dollars a year or whatever," he says, "wouldn't you at least show up somewhere to see your clients ahead of time? I'm talking about the most rudimentary principles of honest lawyering. Where is the conscience of these people?"
McEachern bristles at Kennedy's remarks, telling New Times, "The term 'meet-and-greet' sounds terrible, but it's reality, the nature of the game sometimes, such as when a client decides to show up for court for the first time halfway through a case."
Surprisingly, McEachern says, "I don't have to speak to every person face to face to understand their story. I am a history person, and I do appellate work, and I understand how to read cold copy and get something from it. Some of these kids have everyone constantly in their face therapists, teachers, caseworkers and they lose track of which one's which.
"It's not the lawyer who should be going out and visiting the clients. It should be that lawyer's social worker, if she has one, which I do. I'm not a psychologist, I'm a lawyer, and I know which cases need my priorities."
McEachern says it's not unusual for her clients (the ones who aren't behind bars) to skip appointments with her, fail to return her phone calls, miss court hearings and make a healthy attorney-client relationship impossible.
But Mark Kennedy says the county has added provisions to new juvenile contracts going into effect July 1 that will compel private attorneys to avow in writing that they have visited with clients before going to court.
"Some of the lawyers in the dependency bar do excellent, conscientious work," he says. "But others just go through the motions, just try to move their cases through by going along with whatever CPS tells the judge kind of hydroplaning through hearing after hearing. I say you owe it to your client to at least get to know what they are about before you get to court. Some of our attorneys literally don't have the time to do that."
But Ronald Reinstein, another judge on the dependency beat in downtown Phoenix, says of the lawyers who appear in his court, "All I ask is of them is to be prepared, to know what their case is about and to represent their clients to the best of their abilities, and that's what I get most of the time."
Reinstein speaks well of the work performed by many dependency attorneys who regularly appear before him, such as Christine Mulleneaux (who was paid $220,890 in 2006), Christopher Theut ($124,736), the husband and wife team of Dan and Pamela Wiens Saint ($298,600 between the couple) and others.
One of the most respected members of the county judiciary, Reinstein adds a cautionary note: "The numbers of cases that some of these attorneys apparently have been juggling is really troubling. I can't imagine that it's healthy for anyone involved."
What it has been is healthy for many of their bank accounts.
Reinstein says another court official familiar with the situation recently suggested, apparently only somewhat in jest, that the judge should apply for a county contract when he retires in a few months because that's where the money has been.
Reinstein says (wry smile in place) he isn't leaning in that direction yet.
Mark Kennedy says he's confident that other changes in the upcoming juvenile contracts, including a limit on cases (a maximum of 260 per attorney), some reduction of pay for the dependency attorneys and other cost-cutting measures will have an immediate and positive effect.
Needless to say, the dependency bar is none too pleased by the upcoming changes.
"I think what happened is that people at the Board of Supervisors and in Mark Kennedy's office just got together as a tribal group and decided to vote us off the island," says Janelle McEachern. "They think we're spoiled little brats, and they're giving us a big spanking."
Says Kennedy, "No doubt there will be growing pains as we step into what I think is going to be a seismic change in how we do business with these lawyers. But something's got to give, period, and we're taking steps to make sure it does."
Not counting Patricia O'Connor, 37 private lawyers specializing in juvenile cases were paid more than $100,000 last year by Maricopa County.
Seven juvenile dependency attorneys, including O'Connor, collected more than $200,000 in 2006. Right behind O'Connor were Janelle McEachern and Jeffrey Zurbriggen, who were paid $277,992 and $266,925, respectively.
The county's Peter Ozanne, who was executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services in Portland, Oregon, before moving to Phoenix last October, says the financial situation for dependency attorneys in Oregon is vastly different than it is here.
The money that Maricopa County's dependency attorneys have been making, compared with others in the system, apparently has been giving even some of them pause.
"It is skewed," Janelle McEachern says, "and if I was a death penalty attorney or a judge, I'd say, 'Wait a minute' too. They have families to support and offices to run. But I'm not the one who disperses the money. I don't know, maybe all of the other parts of the system should lobby to get more money."
But Patricia O'Connor sees the assault on the amount of money she's been making as somewhat hypocritical.
"How many lawyers out there would be willing to hold a brand new baby who's going through meth withdrawals and is having seizures?" says the former prosecutor and public defender. "Or would be willing to spend hours with a woman with an IQ of 58 to try to keep her on track? Or try to figure out what to do with a child who's been molested repeatedly by a sibling or two?
"If you do it right, this work isn't for everyone. CPS doesn't know what it's doing a lot of the time, with the high turnover and the lack of continuity of services. That's where a good dependency lawyer can step in and micro-manage. I'm a workaholic, and I'd like Mark Kennedy or anyone else to walk a mile in my shoes.
"Bottom line, the only people who are truly going to get hurt by everything getting stirred up about the money we've been making are those that the system already hurts the children who aren't going to get the representation they deserve."
But with all the cases that a small group of dependency lawyers continue to handle in Maricopa County can children and their parents possibly be getting adequate representation?
Assistant County Manager Peter Ozanne thinks not.
"It's hard to imagine being able to do the job with 500 cases, or 800, or whatever," he says. "I think that's common sense. I also think that we in the county have to open up a conversation with the judges who keep appointing the same people to these dependency cases, and with everyone else who works on these cases. Things have to change, and they're going to."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.