Whether abused and neglected children in Washington state are appointed an attorney to help them navigate the court system depend on where a child lives.
Washington is one of the few states in the nation lacking a law that mandates foster children be appointed an attorney. Without statewide standards, it’s up to individual judges to decide whether to appoint legal counsel. The outcome: a better shot at justice for some and tough luck for others, depending on the child’s address.
"For us to have such a fragmented policy across the state is just really outrageous," said Jim Theofelis, executive director of the Mockingbird Society, a Seattle-based child advocacy organization. “It shouldn't matter where you live, what your mamma's address is or the size of your daddy's bank account for you to get the services you need to get to the next best place."
Judges decide all the major decisions in a foster child’s life, such as if a child will live with siblings, what services the child will receive, and if and when the child can go home. Most foster children in Washington state are appointed volunteer advocates who work for the court. Some are given Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs), or guardian ad litems.
But many child advocates say foster children fare better in the system when they have a legal advocate. Most states already require that an attorney be appointed to represent the point of view of the foster child, but that only happens in a few counties in Washington.
“If the kid were eight or nine, facing two or three days in detention, we would give that kid an attorney. But when a kid is facing 21 years in our state’s foster care system and the court controls every aspect over their life and we’re going to deny them an attorney? That doesn’t make any sense to me,” said child advocacy attorney Casey Trupin of Columbia Legal Services.
Justice by geography
Policies vary wildly from county to county. All foster children, even babies, receive attorneys in Asotin, Columbia and Garfield counties. In King County, minors ages 12 and older are appointed counsel. In Benton-Franklin, children ages 8 and older get an attorney. Judges in Walla Walla, Adams, Snohomish, and Spokane counties also routinely appoint counsel for abused and neglected children. But children in nearly every other county rarely receive a legal advocate.
“To me it’s a matter of fundamental fairness,” said Judge Bill Acey of the Superior Courts of Asotin, Columbia and Garfield counties, also known as the Hells Canyon Circuit Court.
Judge Acey is the only judge in the state to appoint every single foster child legal representation. He says children removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect are better off in his corner of the state.
“Absolutely, they have a voice in my courtroom that they never would have without an attorney,” said Acey. “These children need a voice. It’s not right or fair to deny them an opportunity to have an advocate speak up for them when everyone else in the process has a lawyer. That’s not equal protection at all.”
Former foster child Amelia Terhune wasn't lucky enough to live in a county where judges automatically assign foster kids lawyers. During her nine years in the system, Terhune lived in eight different places. She said no one explained what was going on or where she was headed next.
"I didn't have anybody when I was in foster care," said Terhune, who’s now 25. "I think it's really sad because if I would have had an attorney my life would be completely different."
Terhune was abused in one foster home and ended up a homeless runaway, begging on the streets of Seattle. At one point she was mistakenly placed in a mental institution.
"If I had an attorney at that point, my attorney could have stepped in and could have said, ‘No. This isn't going to happen. This is where she needs to be.' But I didn't have that."
She said one of the most traumatic moments came at age 12 when her younger siblings were taken to another foster home. She had no warning that would happen and did not know that a longstanding law in Washington state promotes brothers and sisters stay together if at all possible.
"I completely fell apart. I had no family left,” said Terhune. “I had no idea what my rights were. I just thought, you know, my little brothers and sisters are gone. I'm never going to see them again."
Lack of funds
Legislators who've voted against appointing attorneys for foster kids say it's about cost. Under the current structure, counties would pay for the extra lawyers. Judges such as Steve Warning from Cowlitz County have testified in Olympia that they don't have the money.
"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 (from the state)," said Judge Warning.
In the Hells Canyon Circuit they’ve found the money, and Judge Acey says they’ve also found success. His circuit has the best record in the state for reuniting foster children with their biological families. In Asotin, Columbia and Garfield counties, 81 percent of cases ended in reunification in 2012. The state average was 56 percent.
"I'm just one judge in southeastern Washington that can speak from the voice of experience that tells everybody: It does work and the dollars are well spent and well worth it," said Acey. "We have a lot to be proud of in the state of Washington. We just need to step up to the plate on this issue. It's long overdue. We need to address it, we need to get it resolved and we need to put it behind us."
The 40 states that appoint attorneys for all or most foster children pay for the service in a myriad of ways. Most receive state support. In Washington, that would take action by the legislature. In 2005, state lawmakers passed a bill which created a revenue stream from court filings fees to pay for the appointment of attorneys for each biological parent in these cases. That money comes from the state general fund.