The right to an attorney is one of our most fundamental constitutional privileges. Yet a study byFirst Star, a leading national advocacy group for children’s rights, concluded that only half of our states currently provide legal representation to children in dependency and foster care court proceedings. Even more disturbing, the study found that the legal protections afforded to abused and neglected children are weaker and less consistent than those furnished to common criminals and the children’s abusers. In fact, criminals are provided an attorney free of charge in every state of the union.
First Star’s comprehensive report, a Child’s Right to Counsel (2012), surveyed “whether and how each state’s laws mandated effective legal representation for maltreated children” and issued each state a report card: Washington state received an F. Yet this flunking grade will improve as of July 1, 2014 due to the passage of Senate Bill 6126 that was signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee.
The new legislation requires courts to appoint attorneys for children in dependency proceedings six months after the parent-child relationship is terminated and when there is no remaining parent with parental rights. The state is also required to pay for the child’s attorney, although this is subject to the availability of funds appropriated for the legislation. (More on this later).
The bill is important because studies show that kids navigate the foster care system better, are more likely to stay out of trouble and save the state money when they have legal representation. Attorneys can also help shorten the child’s time in foster care and improve their chances of finding a permanent home. The new legislation provides significant gains for the roughly 10,000 children in our state’s foster care system.