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.