A good day for at-risk kids

State Sen. David Frockt

Washington lawmakers approved three bills Friday aimed at helping at-risk kids. 

Bills to keep most juvenile records confidential, to require attorneys for foster kids in court, and to track homeless students are on their ways to becoming laws. 

The Washington House unanimously passed the legal representation bill by Sen. Steve O' Ban, R-Pierce County on Friday. Meanwhile, the Senate unanimously passed the juvenile records bill by Rep. Ruth Kagi, D- Seattle.  And the House passed 90-6 a bill by Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, to set up ways to track homeless students in schools. All three bills had earlier passed unanimously in their originating chambers of the Legislature.

Kagi's bill will help 6,000 kids a year, said Casey Trupin, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services. "This has been a long time in the making," he said.

In 1977, Washington opened juvenile offender records up to the public. Since then, a person can seek to seal his or her juvenile file on a case-by-case basis, but the criteria for sealing have become stricter over the years. Kagi's bill limits access to non-violent juvenile files to the court, the appropriate attorneys and the defendant.

The exceptions in Kagi's bill originally included sex crimes, serious violent crimes, first-degree arson, second-degree assault of a child, second-degree kidnapping, leading organized crime and malicious placement of an explosive. Drug dealing was added to the exceptions at the request of landlords, Kagi said.

The bill makes sealing the appropriate records an automatic process at age 18 unless someone takes court action to stop that sealing.

To Kagi, a kid with a non-violent record shouldn't be haunted for a lifetime by a dumb teenage mistake. She talked Friday about a former foster kid who was attacked by others and defended herself, but collected an assault conviction in the process. That conviction kept her from getting a job until she spent a year getting her juvenile record sealed. Now, she is on the brink of graduating from the University of Washington, which she could not have done without a job, Kagi said.

"She obviously turned her life around," Kagi said.

O'Ban's bill provides 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 nationally 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 when they become dependents of the state. A major argument cited for the bill has been that court-appointed attorneys would move a child through the legal system faster — and therefore more cheaply — than a kid without legal representation.

O'Ban said: “These children, who are essentially orphans, have had very little say in their own futures. Providing them with a voice in court can make all the difference in the kind of adults they will eventually become."

Frockt's bill will require the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to track personal and academic information on homeless students, and report the information to the Legislature. The number of homeless students in Washington is 30,609 students, which is an 11.8 percent increase from 2011-12 and a 47.3 percent increase from 2007-08.

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