Arizona on Wednesday became the latest state to require that children involved in abuse or neglect cases be appointed an attorney to represent their best interest.
Gov. Doug Ducey signed the bill into law, which was sponsored by state Sen. Nancy Barto, after it passed the Legislature. Ducey and Barto are Republicans.
The chief architect of the bill was Rebecca Masterson, general counsel at Gen Justice, a Phoenix-based nonprofit that advocates for the legal rights of children. She praised lawmakers from every part of the state for standing as one to “remedy (an) injustice for Arizona’s abandoned and abused kids.”
“When a child enters foster care, a court case is initiated,” she explained in a news release. “Parents are appointed lawyers to protect their rights, the Arizona Department of Child Safety is appointed lawyers, yet the victim in the case – the abused child – was not given legal representation.”
Thirty-four states require an attorney for all children, according to A Child’s Right to Counsel, a biannual report card analysis published by the Children’s Advocacy Institute and First Star. Before this law’s passage, Arizona was among seven states that provided attorneys on a discretionary basis. Despite receiving a middling grade of “C” on the 2019 report card, Arizona received high marks for guaranteeing “client-directed counsel,” meaning the attorney was tasked with articulating what the child wants to happen as opposed to arguing in the child’s best interest.
Research, according to Gen Justice, shows that children with an attorney leave foster care much faster, without affecting rates of family reunification, than those without. Children who can safely reunite with their parents do that, and those who can’t are adopted more quickly.
“An attorney with a legal and ethical duty to the child is among the most important protections we can give a child who has been abandoned or abused. Representation is a cornerstone of the American justice system,” added Gen Justice founder and CEO Darcy Olsen.