A RECENT report gave Washington state an F grade for failing to protect the legal rights of foster children, ranking our state 48th in the nation.
A foster child’s life is almost entirely controlled by a complex legal system, full of hearings and procedures, state and federal laws, mandated timelines, burdens of proof, evidence and myriad legal rights. A child in foster care can even be jailed for running away or violating a court order.
While adults and children facing even one day in jail for a criminal offense are given an attorney, children in Washington’s foster-care proceedings — perhaps the most invasive legal proceedings a child can face — are generally denied an attorney in most Washington counties.
A bipartisan bill, HB 1285, would provide an attorney to foster children in the most vulnerable circumstances. Our Legislature should enact this law to protect children, their families and the integrity of our justice system.
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Lucy, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is a foster child in our state. Lucy’s mom put her and her brother in foster care because she couldn’t protect them from an abusive boyfriend. Lucy’s mother received an attorney. The state had an attorney. The father, also violently abusive and absent for years, had an attorney for the criminal matter and another lawyer representing him in the foster-care case. We think this is how it should have been, except for one thing — neither Lucy nor her brother had representation.
Our laws give Lucy substantial legal rights — the right to maintain family contact where appropriate, to receive services and to be returned home or find another permanent home. Nobody told Lucy what her options were when she was permanently removed from her family. Nobody told Lucy she should be allowed to live in the same foster home with her brother or had the right to regular visits with him if they were separated.
Nobody explained that she could be jailed if she didn’t follow the court’s orders. Nobody requested an order to ensure the state provided enough support to make this placement the last one. Nobody ensured that her 10-year-old brother’s legal rights were protected before or after he was locked in a hospital for a year, put on psychotropic medications, or sent to a group home.
Lucy and her brother might ask themselves: “If this case is about us, why does everyone else have an attorney?” As advocates for foster children, we ask that question too.
Numerous national and state entities, including Washington’s Supreme Court Commission on Children in Foster Care, have called for all foster children to have attorneys. This call is supported by parents whose children spent too much time in care, by foster parents who have seen their foster children bounced around and, most important, by the children themselves. They suffer a fundamental lack of fairness in a system that takes over their lives, but denies them any way to enforce rights afforded to them. Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia already provide attorneys to all or almost all foster children.
Providing attorneys for foster children has dramatically reduced children’s time in foster care and dramatically increased their chances of finding a permanent home, according to a study of Palm Beach County, Fla., by Chapin Hall at University of Chicago. Providing representation may, in fact, save our state and counties money, while restoring childhoods.
In many cases, children have non-attorney guardians ad litem or volunteer court-appointed special advocates who play the important role of gathering information for the court, but it is not their role, nor are they trained, to protect children’s legal rights.
The Washington Supreme Court recently stated that, because foster children are “powerless and voiceless … forced to move from one foster home to another,” they have “at least” the same federal constitutional right to an attorney as do parents.
No parent would send their child into court without an attorney — we should demand nothing less for children like Lucy.
Bobbe J. Bridge, left, is a retired state Supreme Court justice and CEO of the Center for Youth Justice. Joel Benoliel is senior vice president and chief legal officer at Costco Wholesale.