National Campaign Launched to Strengthen State and Federal Laws Protecting Abused and Neglected Children
Nearly half of U.S. states fail to provide legal representation for abused and neglected foster children, leaving them without a voice during judicial proceedings that profoundly impact their futures, a new study found. The peer-reviewed study, “A Child’s Right to Counsel, First Star’s National Report Card on Legal Representation for Children,” has been released by First Star, a leading national child advocacy organization.
The first-of-its-kind study, released in April at a Congressional briefing on Capitol Hill, found “glaring anomalies” in how states protect the legal rights of foster children, leading to substandard levels of service and unacceptable outcomes in most states. Fifteen states received failing grades and six more received Ds. Only five states received As.
First Star assembled leading national child welfare experts to establish guiding principles for a child’s right to counsel and develop a grading system based on each principle. Each state’s laws regarding representation for abused and neglected children were analyzed and the states were graded on a 100-point scale based on statutes, court rules, and practice.
An estimated 70 percent of children entering the dependency system end up in long-term foster care until they either age out of the system or are adopted, according to a 2002 study conducted by Bob Fellmeth Esq., Director of the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego Law School. For many of these children, the system is a revolving door of foster homes and court proceedings.
Joined by Court TV’s Star Jones Reynolds, actor Derek Luke, and former foster youth Heather Wilder, First Star has launched a national Campaign for a Child’s Right to Counsel to encourage Congress and the states to guarantee legal representation for children in abuse, neglect, and dependency cases, and create uniform national standards for quality. “Our objective is to improve the lives of abused and neglected children by strengthening the laws that guarantee them effective legal representation,” First Star CEO Deborah Sams said. “Experts and practitioners across the country agree that children who are represented by well-trained, client directed attorneys in dependency hearings receive the best care and have a much stronger chance for success.”
The goals of the campaign include:
Guarantee Attorneys for Children–Require any state receiving federal funds to guarantee trained attorneys for all children in dependency and foster care proceedings.
Develop a Set of Required Standards of Practice–Require any state receiving federal funds to adopt standards of practice for such attorneys.
Create Federal Grant Programs for Legal Representation–Create a federal grant program to support establishment of university-based multidisciplinary curricula to educate and train child attorneys and other professionals serving abused and neglected children.
Establish Case Load Limits–Require that states using federal money maintain reasonable limits on the number of children each attorney is assigned so as to ensure adequate representation by an attorney devoted to and familiar with the case.
Provide Adequate Compensation–Provide a program of federal matching funds to support appropriate compensation for attorneys in child abuse/neglect/dependency cases, conditioned on compliance with mandated standards of practice, caseload controls, and representation at all hearings.
Under the 1974 Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention and Treatment Act, all 50 states and the District of Columbia are required to provide foster children with a legal guardian, but the law left it up to the states to determine who that should be. As a result, states often use different statutory language and mandated roles for child representation, which leads to unequal standards across the country. There is no established legal authority defining the role attorneys should play in representing children, the type of training that will sufficiently prepare them, or the duties and responsibilities entrusted to them.
In July 2005, for the first time in U.S. legal history, in Kenny A. v. Purdue, a federal judge in Georgia ruled that abused and neglected children have a constitutional and statutory right to effective legal representation throughout their foster care experience.
Connecticut is one of only five states that received an A in the study.
First Star is a leading national public charity dedicated to improving the lives of America’s abused and neglected children. First Star, a 501(c) (3), works to change the child welfare system from one of abuse and neglect to one of protection and support through a nonpartisan, multidisciplinary approach to foster collaborative action to benefit children.