Former foster children plead for kids to have attorneys
by John Stang
Former foster kids (left to right) Mikhail Stewart, Mandy Urwiler and Delilah Bruskas testify along with Mockingbird Society's Jim Theofelis. Credit: Photo: John Stang
The common thread was control. Losing it. Yearning for it. Grasping for it.
That's part of being in the foster care system. moving from foster family to foster family, from school to school without any legal say in your fate.
Three women, all former foster kids, shared their experiences with the Washington House's Early Learning & Human Services Committee and Judiciary Committee on Thursday at a hearing in Olympia. They testified in favor of a stalled bill that would require the state to provide foster kids — indeed, all kids — with an attorney in family court cases where the child's parents have had their parental rights terminated.
"I did not know what it would be like to feel alone until I was in foster care (at the age of 5)," Delilah Bruskas, 48, told the committee. Delilah, who is from Tacoma, lived with seven foster families, attending four elementary, two junior high and four high schools. "If I had legal representation," she continued, "I'd have asked several questions: When can I see my mother? When can I go home? … I feared social workers. To me, they were the most powerful people on earth. They could take a child from a family. … I believe legal representation can ensure optimal outcomes."
"It takes away your humanity," said Mikhail Stewart, 21, of Olympia, about her journey through 22 different foster homes in six years. "It seems like you're a piece of property."
Mandy Urwiler, 19, of Seattle said the attorney she obtained in family court four years ago "treated me like an adult when the state treated me like a kid."
Washington's 39 counties are a hodgepodge of different rules about when to provide attorneys for foster children whose parents had their rights terminated. Right now, the appointment of attorneys in such cases is discretionary — based on a judge’s determination — and it varies widely across the state. King County appoints an attorney for children 12 and older; the Benton-Franklin county system for kids eight and older; judges in several counties don't appoint attorneys for kids at all.
"Youths are constantly baffled by the fact that some kids get an attorney and some do not," said Jim Theofelis, executive director of The Mockingbird Society, a foster care advocacy organization. "Surely, we do not want a justice-by-geography system. … An unintended consequence of no legal representation is that it feeds that feeling of desperation in young people."
Washington is one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to giving children whose parents' rights have been terminated access to an attorney. (Kids in Massachusetts have the right to legal representation at birth.) But that may be starting to change.
In the last legislative session in Olympia, Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, introduced a bill to lower the age — from 12 to 7 — at which a child must be informed of his or her right to an attorney. The bill passed the state House of Representatives (74-23). But the state Senate deleted the mandatory provision, giving judges discretion over whether to appoint an attorney. The Senate also bumped the minimum age back up to 12. Thus modified, Goodman’s bill was kicked back to the House, where it sat untouched for the rest of the session.
In the upcoming session, legislators will likely decide how to rank appropriations for this type of program against the state's other budget priorities, according to Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle and chair of the judiciary committee.
Meanwhile, Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge Stephen Warning, speaking for the Washington Superior Court Judges Association, said the organization opposes the bill, albeit reluctantly, because many county governments can't afford the extra court-appointed attorneys. "The counties can't pay for this process," said Warning, adding that the association wants help from the state.
Warning also takes issue with evidence suggesting that giving kids lawyers might actually save money by speeding up court cases. "There's no reason to believe appointed lawyers are going to create savings in some place," he says.
Carl McCurly, executive manager of the Washington State Center for Court Research, would disagree. A recent study by the Center showed that when foster kids have an attorney, their cases move through the system faster — a few weeks faster.
Casey Trupin is the veteran coordinator for children's programs at Columbia Legal Services. He explained that in the current system the burden of finding and retaining an attorney is on the children. And the thought, said Trupin, of a 12-year-old filling out and filing all that paperwork "stretches the bounds of my imagination."