Montgomery County Commissioners Court terminates troubled AFC contract for CPS parental termination cases

Montgomery County Purchasing Director Gilbert Palomo speaks to the Commissioners Court on October 10, 2017.

Conroe, October 11 – “It was the right thing for the County to do,” said County Attorney J.D. Lambright after the Montgomery County Commissioners Court voted unanimously after a lengthy executive session to terminate the County’s contract with nonprofit corporation Advocates for Families in Crisis (AFC) at the conclusion of the October 10, 2017, Commissioners Court meeting. County Purchasing Department Director Gilbert Jalomo explained the recent history between AFC and the County but Assistant County Attorney B.D. Griffin advised him to stop during the open meeting session and shorten Jalomo’s remarks. Lambright added, “This decision is 100% about ethics and conflicts of interest.”

Jalomo explained that the Montgomery County government had sent a letter to AFC on August 18 advising AFC that the County had grave concerns about the selection of some attorneys who provide services in Child Protective Services (CPS) parental termination cases under a $989,240 per year contract with the County. AFC has provided those services since 2012.

Parental termination cases are, obviously, quite serious both for the children involved and their parents who are usually the subject to accusations of drug and alcohol abuse or other activities that result in actual or potential harm to children. On behalf of CPS, County Attorney Lambright’s Office files between three hundred and five hundred parental termination cases per year. Usually, there are approximately three hundred of those cases pending at one time. Despite the parent-child termination request, Lambright and others have made clear that the real purpose in those cases is to bring healing to the family circumstances through court-ordered counseling or rehabilitation programs, so that an actual termination is unnecessary.

AFC provided the attorneys who represented the children and indigent parents as court-appointed attorneys. The idea behind the annual contract with AFC, according to Lambright and according to Office of Court Administration Director Nathan Jensen (who explained the idea during his 2017 budget presentation), was to give the Commissioners Court certainty with respect to the cost to taxpayers for paying those attorneys. Unfortunately, it turned out that the AFC contract cost Montgomery County substantially more than the previous system of appointing attorneys for each case from a random “wheel system” of selection. Please see “Million Dollar Crisis Besmirches County Vendor AFC,” The Golden Hammer, October 5, 2017.

When this newspaper broke this story last week, there were three primary problems with AFC in its relationship with the County government:

  • The cost of the AFC contract is exorbitant compared to the amount the County had paid each year under the “wheel system” of attorney appointments.
  • AFC created an enormous conflict of interest, on October 2, by hiring John Lockwood, an attorney who had left the County Attorney’s CPS Division on August 28, as the new Program Director. Since Lockwood had served on almost two hundred pending CPS parental termination cases on behalf of the County, when he became the Program Director for AFC to oversee the work of attorneys on the opposite side of many of those same cases, AFC had a conflict of interest under the ethics rules which govern attorney conduct in Texas. AFC tried to remedy that problem by terminating Lockwood’s employment on Friday, October 6.
  • Several individuals inside the County government as well as AFC insiders, such as former Program Director and Board member Stephanie Hall, a renowned child welfare attorney, had express concerns, similar to those in the County’s August 18 letter, about some of the attorneys representing children for AFC in CPS cases.

On Friday, October 6, Hall publicly expressed her criticism of AFC and gave the nonprofit 30 days’ notice that she was discontinuing her relationship with the organization. AFC also terminated Lockwood and notified Lambright and Assistant County Attorney Sarah Stallberg the same day.

Letter from AFC’s Director Elizabeth Payte notifying the County Attorney’s Office of John Lockwood’s termination as Program Director.

After the Commissioners Court members held an executive session with Lambright, in the open session, Jalomo presented the two primary options to the Court: either continue with AFC until its contract with the County expires on February 13, 2018, or terminate the contract with 60 days’ notice, as the AFC-County contract requires. Precinct 3 County Commissioner James Noack asked whether immediate termination was possibly. Jalomo explained the 60-day notice requirement.

Precinct 1 County Commissioner Mike Meador moved to terminate AFC with 60 days’ notice and to terminate their use agreement for an office in the James Keeshan County Building within 30 days. Noack seconded Meador’s motion, which the Commissioners Court passed unanimously.

The County Attorney’s Office send official termination to AFC this afternoon. The nonprofit will need to vacate the Keeshan Building office by November 9 and its contract with the County will terminate on December 9, according to Lambright.

Lambright explained that he hopes to resolve the pending motions to disqualify AFC attorneys, resulting from their hiring of Lockwood and his supervisory role, by short affidavits from each attorney handling CPS cases that such attorney didn’t receive confidential information from Lockwood during his brief tenure as Program Director at AFC. Three motions to disqualify are set for hearing before Judge Jerry Winfree on Wednesday morning, October 11, at 9 a.m.

Lambright said, “The judges of the three courts that hear these CPS parental termination cases will need to decide how to proceed with the appointment of attorneys, whether it’s the ‘wheel system’ or some other method.”

Left to right: Montgomery County Attorney J.D. Lambright, County Attorney Office Manager Natalie Laurent.

 

 

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