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Foster care changes struggle in Legislature

There's still a chance that lawmakers will try to catch up with other states in assuring more foster care kids of legal representation.
Sen. Steve O'Ban

Sen. Steve O'Ban

It was hard to keep score. One out of two — or, as it turned out, only one out of four — foster care bills survived a legislative cut-off date on Tuesday.

A bipartisan bill to require attorneys' for foster kids in court by Sen. Steve O'Ban, R-Pierce County, survived the Senate Ways & Means Committee by unanimous approval. The next step would be a vote by the full Washington Senate.

O'Ban's bill is the same as one introduced by Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, that died in a House committee. And Senate and House bills to extend foster care from the age of 18 to 21 in certain cases also failed to make it out of committees on time. Most young people in foster care lose state support after reaching 18.

Although three bills did not survive Tuesday's cut-off deadline for policy bills leaving the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Ways & Means Committee, one or more of two could conceivably be revived later this session. But that would be unusual.

A large number of bills died this week for time or budget reasons because they did not get out of the committees, which is normal in the Legislature. Other House and Senate policy committees recommended all four bills for passage before they went to the budget committees

One pair of bills would have provided kids, including foster kids, with an attorney in family court matters after the child's parents have had their parental rights terminated. Currently, the appointment of attorneys in such cases is based on a judge’s discretion, and it varies across the state. King County appoints an attorney for children 12 and older; the Benton-Franklin county system for kids 8 and older. But judges in several counties don't appoint attorneys for kids at all.

Washington ranks close to last in the nation when it comes to ensuring that children whose parents' rights have been terminated get access to an attorney. By contrast, kids in Massachusetts have the right to legal representation at any age.

A bill to accomplish this by Goodman died in the House Appropriations Committee Monday and Tuesday due to inaction. But the Senate Ways & Means Committee approved Tuesday an identical bill offered by Sen. Steve O'Ban, R-Peirce County. "This bill kicks in when kids essentially become orphans in our court system. ... it is a right that is long overdue," O'Ban argued in a hearing at the beginning of Tuesday's Ways and Means session. A major argument for either of the bills had been that court-appointed attorneys would move a child through the legal system faster — and therefore cheaply — than a kid without legal representation.

Meanwhile, bills by Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, and Rep. Mary Helen Roberts, D-Mukilteo, would have extended foster care for young people up to 21 years old if they are employed at least 80 hours a month or have medical conditions that require extended foster care. Jim Theopolis, executive director of the Mockingbird Society, a non-profit organization addresses foster care issues, argued Tuesday to the Ways and Means Committee that Fain's bill would enable foster kids to stay in the system while working part-time, giving them chances to establish their lives. "The local and national research on this shows this provides a good return on investment," he said.

Roberts' bill died from inaction at meetings on Monday and Tuesday. Fain's bill suffered the same fate on Tuesday.

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.

John Stang covers state government for Crosscut. He can be reached by writing editor@crosscut.com.


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