Mandy Urwiler of Seattle is successfully parenting her four-year-old son, Nicky. He’s a happy, curious child who speaks at the level of a five-year-old. And according to his mother, most importantly, he’s being raised by family.
"I think it's one of the most important things in the world. He needs his mom. He needs to know where he comes from," said Urwiler, who is now 19. "I don't think he would ever thrive like he is in foster care, without his mother."
Soon after he was born, Urwiler nearly lost her baby to Washington's foster care system. She was a teenage mom and a foster child herself, accused by the state of lacking the ability to properly parent her child because she smoked cigarettes and consumed copious amounts of caffeine while nursing.
"It felt like they were trying to take my baby away from me because I was too young. Because any parent over the age of 18 would not have somebody saying: 'You drank coffee and smoked cigarettes? We're going to take your baby away from you.’ No, that wouldn’t happen," said Urwiler.
But unlike most foster kids in Washington state, Urwiler had a card up her sleeve to fight for her son -- an attorney appointed by the court. She lives in King County, one of the few counties in the state that provides a legal advocate to every foster kid over the age of 12.
"I was in King County, so I was lucky," said Urwiler. “My attorney gave me the chance to prove people wrong. Prove everyone wrong."
The majority of foster children in Washington navigate the system alone. Although most are appointed Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) or guardian ad litems to advise the court on the best interests of the child, these officers are not attorneys -- they do not have the mission or training to protect the legal rights of the child.
Mikhail Stewart of Olympia was a foster child in Washington state for 13 years. During that time she bounced between 22 homes. While Stewart was assigned a CASA, she never met that person and never had an attorney to explain to her what would be happening next in her life.
“I moved my stuff in garbage bags, I didn’t have a suitcase, and whatever I could fit in the garbage bag is what I took with me. Sometimes I didn’t even unpack. I never even opened my garbage bags because I knew I wouldn’t be there long,” said Stewart. “I said to my caseworker I feel like a dog from the pound.”
The Washington state legislature has yet to pass a law that would guarantee all foster children legal counsel, making it one of the few states in the country denying this resource to abused and neglected children. County and court officials have lobbied lawmakers against such a mandate, saying their budgets are too squeezed to pay for more lawyers. But the only study ever conducted on the outcomes of appointing attorneys for foster children found this practice should actually save money.
A 2008 study by the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago showed that the foster children in their study who had legal representation were adopted or reunified with their parents faster than children without an attorney.
“Children represented (by counsel) were found to have a significantly higher rate of exit to permanency than children not (represented). In the main, this difference appears to be a function of much higher rates of adoption and long-term custody among (represented) children,” wrote the University of Chicago researchers.
An analysis of the Chapin Hall study by the Seattle-based child advocacy group Columbia Legal Services found getting kids in and out of the system quicker saves money in the long run.
“Maintaining children in foster care is much costlier than placing them in permanent homes. One study calculated that for the average child entering care at age 3, permanency generates long-term savings…between $4,360 and $8,455 per child per year – even when accounting for increased court costs,” wrote researchers at Columbia Legal Services.
"We'll save the kids but we'll save money too because the cases will be shorter. They won't be in the court as long," said Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland).
Goodman has proposed legislation that would provide more foster children access to a legal advocate.
"We've done a good job of providing lawyers for vulnerable people but foster kids are the last segment that we're sort of hanging out there without any help," said Goodman. “It’s a quiet crisis going on with these kids suffering without anyone to argue on their behalf and I think the public needs to know about that.”
Most involved in the child welfare system agree that representation for everyone in these cases, including the children, is good policy. Currently, Washington state provides assistant attorneys general for social workers and state money pays for attorneys for the parents accused of neglecting or abusing their kids through the general fund. But the financial uncertainties of adding more attorneys have led to stalled legislation.
“The (most recent) bill provided the policy, which I believe the courts, counties and other interested stakeholders support, but no way to pay for the additional expenses, which means counties would be left scrambling to pay for it. That is not responsible legislating,” wrote Rep. Terry Nealey (R-Dayton) in a letter to KING 5.
“No one disagreed with the theory,” said Rep. Jay Rodne (R-North Bend). “But in terms of budget priorities, where does this fit in? We would have to create a new revenue stream.”
“There’s no reason to believe that appointing lawyers for kids is going to create some savings some place, that it’s going to create a pot of money that we could assume would be there to pay for this,” testified Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge Steve Warning before a legislative committee on Oct. 3.
“If it’s a good idea, then please enact it and please fund it,” said Warning.
Mandy’s case closed
After five months of fighting the state in court proceedings in 2010, a King County superior court judge agreed that Mandy Urwiler deserved a chance to parent her child.
“The judge said, 'Leave her alone. She's doing what she can. She's obviously doing just fine,’" said Urwiler. “Without an attorney, I wouldn’t have had a voice. I wouldn’t have had an argument. I wouldn’t have been able to tell the judge anything because they wouldn’t have cared what I had to say because I’m just a kid that doesn’t know anything.”
Urwiler is pursuing a degree in social work and works as an advocate at the Mockingbird Society, a Seattle-based foster child advocacy group.