Children’s Right to Counsel in Abuse and Neglect Court Proceedings

First Star and the Children’s Advocacy Institute partnered to release the third edition of a national report card on legal representation for abused and neglected children. Today, they sponsored a briefing, hosted by Representative Pete Stark (D-CA), to release the updated report. Elissa Garr, Executive Director of First Star, opened the event introducing the report and the panelists. She renewed a call for a national campaign by questioning the fragmented requirements for child representation in dependency hearings in comparison to the more consistent right to an attorney in criminal proceedings.

Roy Davis, the author of the report, followed with a summary of the report findings. Looking at six criteria and one bonus consideration, 26 states and the District of Columbia scored a B or higher in the strength of the laws mandating legal representation for maltreated children. Of the remaining half, 16 states scored only a D or F. The criteria includes:

  • The existence of a state law requiring the appointment of an attorney,
  • A requirement for the attorney to represent the child in a client-directed manner,
  • A requirement that the same attorney remain on the case throughout the child’s, experience of state custody
  • A requirement for specialized education or training for the attorney,
  • Legal recognition of the child as party status,
  • Application of attorney-client confidentiality and immunity from liability, and
  • Bonus: Legal caseload limits.

Three alumni of care followed, providing illuminating stories of their experience, or lack thereof, with legal representation while in foster care. One who had the experience of an effective attorney described himself as lucky. Another had several overworked attorneys who were not effective at representing him.  The other panelist did not have attorney and described being voiceless at several decision points throughout her care. All agreed that effective attorney representation is a critical support and believe it would further permanency and sibling connections.

Representative Dave Camp (R-MI), himself an attorney who has experience working in the fragmented counsel system for maltreated children spoke next. He commended the report as an important tool in highlighting differences in representation across the country and encouraging steps to protect the right of children in foster care. He referenced the recent passage of the Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act (P.L. 112-34) under his committee’s jurisdiction and pointed out that it preserves Court Improvement Program funding. He called for advocates and lawmakers to further rally to address this issue.

Cathy Krebbs with the American Bar Association and Amy Harfeld with the Children’s Advocacy Institute concluded the panel. Krebbs discussed theABA’s Standards for child counsel in child welfare court proceedings and their model legislation that incorporates each of the criteria upon which the states were scored in the report. Harfield called on Congress not to wait until reauthorization of CAPTA to address this issue. She further discussed the need for good practice to be codified in areas where it is only policy that is lacking and for other areas with good policy to ensure they are meeting the standard the policy sets.

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