Washington lags behind nearly every other state in the nation when it comes to protecting the rights of children in the foster care system, in large part because the legislature has not passed a law that would give abused and neglected children legal representation in their cases.
In child abuse and neglect cases, court orders determine the child’s future. Based on input from attorneys representing social workers and parents, judges rule on life altering issues such as whether the child will stay in foster care, visit siblings, receive social services or go home.
But in Washington, the child is the only one in the courtroom without guaranteed legal counsel, making it one of only a handful of states that continue to operate its child welfare system in this manner.
A leading child advocacy research group, the Washington, D.C.-based First Star, gives Washington state an "F" grade on its annual study of how well states do at protecting the legal rights of abused and neglected chidldren. Only Indiana, Hawaii and Idaho earn lower scores. The group gave Massachusetts, Connecticut and Oklahoma all A-plus grades.
“(In Washington we are) terrible. We are a terrible state when it comes to this. We are absolutely close to the bottom of the barrel," said child advocacy attorney Casey Trupin of Columbia Legal Services. "It's unjustified and it's embarrassing. We are so far behind states all around the country that it's hard for others to believe and sad for us to see."
“I think it's abhorrent," said Jim Theofelis, executive director of the Mockingbird Society, a Seattle-based advocacy group. “These decisions are made in a courtroom, that's the legal game and it makes no sense to me to have the only one in the courtroom whose life is most impacted -- the youngster -- being the only one without an attorney."
Child advocates and researchers have found that children move out of the foster care system and into permanent placements faster when they are appointed attorneys who can give the kids a voice in court. Limited research on the issue also finds states could save money in the long run because less time in state care means fewer tax dollars are spent on services guaranteed to foster youth.
"We're seeing too many kids being cut off from their siblings. Too many kids not going home to fit parents, too many kids not going to relatives and those are the types of things that an attorney can help bring about," said Trupin.
"I saw my real parents shoot up. I saw my dad break my mom's jaw in front of me with a telephone," said former foster child Mikhail Stewart of Olympia.
Stewart, now 21, bounced between 22 different homes in her 13 years in foster care. She said she was never consulted about her case. No one ever asked for her opinion or went over her legal rights.
"A lot of my legal rights I still to this day I don't know that I had. Still to this day I don't know what they entail," she said.
Between the ages of 5 and 18, Stewart suffered several traumas, including being adopted into an abusive family. A judge removed her and placed her into a loving home where she was to be adopted, but at age 12 the state removed her when her new foster parents were going through a divorce. She said no one explained to her what was happening.
“(In foster care) you feel like a dog. You take me from the pound, maybe this family wants me. Maybe they don’t. Maybe I’m a good fit. Maybe I do something wrong and they send me back and another family tries to pick me up,” said Stewart. “(If I had an attorney) there would have been so many things I would have asked. There were so many things I would have said -– like, 'Where am I going?'”
Cost of Justice
In Washington, where approximately 9,300 children are in the foster care system, the stumbling block is money. Despite lobbying by child welfare advocates, the legislature has heard from county officials and Superior Court judges who fear the state's 39 counties would be forced to pay for attorneys. Judge Steve Warning of the Cowlitz County Superior Court testified before the legislature in October that the state would need to find the money if it mandates attorneys for foster children.
“In my county we’ve got to cut $4 million out of a $40 million budget. The counties can’t pay for this process if they don’t get the money to do it,” said Warning. “If this is good policy, enact it and pay for it and pay for all of it. That is our biggest concern.”
Trupin and other child advocates say Washington should prioritize this issue and figure out a way to do right by one of the most vulnerable populations in our society.
“(Other) states are giving all of these kids attorneys because they realize it works, it’s important. The kids are at the center of the cases and the kids have federal and state rights which need to be protected,” said Trupin.
Court Appointed Special Advocates
Most foster children in Washington state are appointed volunteer advocates who work for the court. Some are given Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA’s), or guardian ad litems. While child welfare experts say these volunteers serve an important purpose in reporting to the court what they believe is in the child’s best interest, they are not attorneys able to make motions. More importantly, they are not legally required to represent the child’s point of view.
In Mikhail Stewart’s case, she never met her court appointed advocate.
“I know that I had a CASA but I did not know my CASA. (At the time) I didn’t even know I had one. I didn’t know what they did or what the point of them was," she said.
As an adult, Stewart said she struggles with the aftermath of her chaotic foster care years. She has trouble trusting adults, forming relationships, and has anxiety and depression. But she's speaking out to try to help current foster kids. She volunteers for the Mockingbird Society as an advocate working for changes in the system that she believes failed her.
“I believe that if I had that legal representation and my voice to be heard (in court), my life would have been changed," said Stewart. “This needs to happen in order for the system to be better.”