Startling new research from the University of Washington law school shows the costs of the state’s sporadic access to lawyers for foster kids.

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WHEN parents are at risk of losing children because of abuse or neglect, they get a lawyer. The state, of course, has the attorney general to act as a prosecutor.

But the lives they’re wrestling over — the children — often don’t have anyone speaking for them in court.

That lapse has been shown to lengthen these vulnerable children’s time in foster care and slows down their path toward a permanent home. This is a problem the 2016 Legislature should solve, because spending more on attorneys for foster kids could, in fact, save money on foster care while improving the children’s lives.

According to startling new research from the University of Washington law school, more than one-third of foster children in King and Snohomish counties do not have anyone speaking for them — either a lawyer or a court-appointed advocate — in court hearings. That finding is based on researchers observing 562 hearings involving 872 children over a recent six-month period.

Some counties routinely assign a lawyer to foster kids once they reach a certain age. In King County, it’s age 12, according to the UW study. But that doesn’t help younger kids, and 27 of the state’s counties don’t have any set policy at all. This is justice by geography.

The state doesn’t require foster kids be assigned attorneys while child-abuse cases are open. As of 2014, the state began requiring a lawyer be appointed once parental rights are terminated and kids are “legally free” within the foster-care system. But that is very late in the process for a foster kid who has lingered for months, or years, awaiting his or her fate.

Why should a foster child get a lawyer more quickly? Because it’s better for them and makes the overburdened foster-care system more efficient. A study out of the Palm Beach County in Florida found that children leave the foster-care system for a permanent home 1.5 times faster if they have a lawyer. And a pilot project in Washington state found that highly trained lawyers increased the chance of foster kids getting into permanent homes within six months by 40 percent, according to a new study by The University of Chicago.

Requiring that lawyers be assigned to represent foster children would cost about $1,500 per child, per year. By some estimates, more than 8,000 foster children would qualify, costing $12 million or more a year. That’s big money, although it likely would be offset by savings from fewer days in foster care.

A children’s rights organization, based on a national survey in 2015, gave Washington an “F” grade for its access to counsel for foster kids — giving it the fourth-lowest access in the U.S.. Other states do a far better job and have better results to show for it.

The question of whether foster children have a constitutional right to an attorney is now before the state Court of Appeals in Tacoma. A ruling could come before the Legislature returns in January.

When it does, lawmakers should ask what is best for the most vulnerable kids in society. The answer is clear.

Information in this article, originally published Aug. 21, 2016, was corrected Aug. 22, 2016. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the grade Washington received for its access to counsel for foster kids and its ranking among other states.