Jasmine Gault and her sister Sadie felt more and more left out and frustrated as the complicated battle for their custody dragged on for eight years.
Their great aunt and uncle had been granted custody of the sisters after their mom and dad split up in the late 1990s. Their mother passed away in 2004.
Jasmine is 18 now. Sadie is 16. Both wanted to spend more than just weekends with their father James Gault, and less time in Des Moines with the aunt and uncle Jasmine calls emotionally abusive. Problem is: the aunt and uncle had a lawyer. James Gault couldn’t afford one. At court appearances, he usually represented himself. (The girls also have a half-brother who lives with another relative and isn’t part of the custody dispute.)
For years, the lack of legal representation put the sisters and their father at a serious disadvantage. The State of Washington doesn't require or provide legal representation for juveniles. "There's no right to a publicly-funded attorney in a family law contest," says Rob Wyman, long-time legal aid attorney. Wyman is currently studying the effectiveness of such representation as part of a joint project with the University of Washington, the U.S. Children's Bureau and the University of Michigan law school.
In the last legislative session in Olympia, Rep. Roger Goodman (below), D-Kirkland, introduced a bill that would have required the state to provide kids, including foster kids, with an attorney in family court matters for cases where the child's parents have had their parental rights terminated. Right now, the appointment of attorneys in such cases is discretionary — based on a judge’s determination — and it varies across the state. King County appoints an attorney for children 12 and older; the Benton-Franklin county system automatically does so for kids eight and older; judges in several counties don't appoint attorneys for kids at all.
Washington ranks close to last in the nation in 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 birth.
In Goodman’s bill, the age at which a child must be informed of his or her right to an attorney would have dropped from 12 to 7. The bill passed the state House of Representatives 74-23 in last spring’s session. But the state Senate eliminated the mandatory part of Goodman’s bill, 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.
The Senate changes effectively neutered Goodman’s bill, says Wyman. Senate opposition was led by the late Mike Carrell, the late Republican Senator from Lakewood, which is in Pierce County. (Sen. Carrell died during the past session.) Pierce County officials testified against the bill, along with representatives from the Washington Association of Counties, the Washington Superior Court Judges Association and the Washington Association of Juvenile Court Administrators. Money was the reason for opposition to Goodman's bill. One Pierce County official testified that 330 kids in the county's court system fit the bill's criteria; providing lawyers for all of them would have cost the county an extra $500,000.
Statewide, says Goodman, several hundred children would be eligible for legal representation each year at a cost of some $1.5 million. But he cited a University of Chicago study showing that the duration of court cases is dramatically shortened when eligible kids have attorneys. The $1.5 million up-front investment could save as much as $3 million annually.
Children's advocacy groups, foster kids and parents, the UW Children and Youth Advocacy Clinic and the Washington Defenders Association testified in favor of Goodman’s bill. They argued that without an attorney to help navigate the complex legal systems, children like Jasmine and Sadie Gault are being denied their rights.
When Jasmine was 15, she managed to retain Rob Wyman on a pro bono basis through the public defenders office. "I was getting older and wanted to voice my opinion,” she says. “Without an attorney, I'd still be living with my aunt and uncle. With an attorney, we were able to say exactly what was going on, to tell stories that we were not able to tell before. That's my dad. What kid doesn't want to live with her own parents. We were not able to visit with him. We were not able to bond with him."
Wyman resolved the Gault girls' multi-year struggle in just a few months in late 2010. Jasmine and Sadie are now where they want to be: with their father. "There was very little magic to it," says Wyman about the Gault case. It was just a matter of knowing the applicable laws and courts, and which matters took priority.
Meanwhile, Rep. Goodman has not given up on his bill to provide kids with lawyers. He has already set up a working group of the bill's supporters and opponents and tasked its members with resolving their differences and hammering out a compromise by the end of the year. That way, Goodman can introduce the revised legislation at the very start of 2014.
To follow Crosscut's coverage of at-risk youth, visit the Kids at Risk page.