Since the 1960s, it’s been a core principle of American criminal law — you have the right to an attorney in federal and state courts. Now, a campaign is underway to extend that guarantee to children and parents nationwide caught up in the child welfare system.
In a letter last month, more than 200 organizations, states and individuals wrote in support of a proposal in the CAPTA Reauthorization Act to guarantee that “all children and parents shall have legal representation by a trained attorney in all cases involving an allegation of child abuse or neglect that results in a judicial proceeding.” Authored by Washington Sen. Patty Murray (D), the bill would reauthorize and amend the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, originally enacted in 1974. The National Association of Counsel for Children is spearheading the campaign and signees include American Civil Liberties Union, Children’s Defense Fund and Think of Us, among others.
“All parties in child welfare court proceedings deserve effective legal representation to zealously advocate for their needs,” the letter states. “With such fundamental rights at stake, access to legal representation at every stage of the proceedings is imperative.”
The letter cited a six-year study that showed that children were 40% more likely to leave foster care within six months when the child’s attorney was specially trained. Moreover, numerous studies have demonstrated that guaranteeing counsel for parents translates to more successful family reunifications, as well as a shorter time to adoption or guardianship when reunification is not a safe option, and overall cost savings. According to the campaign, Counsel for Kids, 14 states do not guarantee counsel for children in child welfare cases.
“While volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) provide a service to the court, they are not substitutes for licensed legal representation for the child,” the letter continued. “Individuals with lived experience in the child welfare system have affirmed that high-quality legal representation is a priority strategy for reform.”