The Washington State Legislature Should Mandate Counsel for Children

Child Abuse & Neglect

Currently pending in the Washington State Legislature is legislation that would made a significant stride towards improving the rights of Washington’s most vulnerable children.

SHB 1285/SB 6126 would mandate legal representation for all children involved in the child welfare system that can no longer be reunited with their families.

When a child enters into foster care, they have already experienced a great deal of trauma in their lives. Throughout their time in foster care, they often have to court proceedings where decisions are made that will affect the rest of their lives, such as where they will live and if they will get to remain in contact with a sibling.

The most extreme cases are those where the rights of a child’s biological parents are terminated, meaning a child will never be reunified with their family. When this type of large disruption in a child’s life occurs, they need many resources, as well as people around them that will keep them informed on what is occurring, explain to them their options, and assist them in making decisions about their life that meet their wishes and are in their best interest.

Yet too often children in these cases are not given an attorney to represent and protect them in court proceedings during this difficult time. This seems counterintuitive – that others can make big decisions about a child’s life, ones that affect their physical liberty, without providing the child with an attorney to ensure that their rights are protected.

In many cases, a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) and/or a Guardian Ad-Litem (GAL) are appointed to assist a child. While CASAs and GALs are important and necessary advocates, a child also needs someone who has the legal authority to ensure that their wishes are heard, and any decisions made by the court are in their best interest.

An attorney has the authority to do an independent investigation of a child’s case if needed, can take additional legal action if decisions are made that do not meet the child’s wishes or best interests, and is in a position to protect the child in a unique way, because as the child’s attorney they are bound to confidentiality under attorney-client privilege.

Recognizing the importance of an attorney for these children, the majority of states (and District of Columbia), have statewide laws that mandate that children in dependency cases receive counsel. This fails to hold true for Washington, however, where despite a 2012 Washington Supreme Court ruling that Washington’s children have at least as great a right to an attorney as do their parents under the federal Constitution, there is no statewide law mandating counsel.

Counties in Washington differ in their practices for appointing counsel for children in dependency cases, and some counties do not appoint counsel at all.

There was a recent hearing on this legislation in the Washington State legislature where Sharonta Pickering, a foster child and high school student, testified as to how her attorney made a difference in her case. She stated:

“When I first set foot in court, I looked at the judge and thought he really didn’t care about me, my opinion or anything like that,” Pickering said. “After I was given an attorney, I really felt for the first time that my voice was being heard and that the adults in the room were listening to my opinion and it mattered to them.”

The Washington State legislature needs to do right by children like Sharonta by passing SHB 1285/SB 6126 and ensure that Washington’s most vulnerable children receive the legal representation they not only deserve, but need to thrive and transition to a successful adulthood.