Three years ago, then-15-year-old Zipporah Williamson went into foster care. She was lost, confused, ready to run away.
Then the King County court system assigned her a lawyer. He talked her out of bolting. Zipporah stuck it out. Now she wants the state to provide attorneys for all foster kids in the court system, and she traveled to Olympia to make that case to state legislators.
“I felt like I had more control because I had an attorney,” Zipporah told the House Judiciary Committee. “I had someone to talk to who was completely on my side. Kids should have an attorney. If not, those kids wouldn't have a voice."
The bill she is advocating for would require the state to appoint legal counsel for any child in any court matter after that child has been removed from his or her parents. The 2014 iteration is a revised version of the stalled bill which was introduced in 2013 by Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland.
Goodman’s proposed legislation would have required the state to provide kids, including foster kids, with an attorney in family court matters after the child's parents have had their parental rights terminated. Right now, 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 eight and older; 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 birth.
"The current system is fragmented; it differs by county,” said Jim Theofelis, executive director of The Mockingbird Society, who wants the legislation tweaked to require extra attorney training and a limit on the number of caseloads per lawyer.
Last session’s bill, including allowing a kid age 7 or older to request an attorney, passed the state House of Representatives 74-23. But the state Senate cut the mandatory language in 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.
Senate opposition to Goodman’s bill was led by Mike Carrell, the late Republican Senator from Lakewood in Pierce County. Carrell died during the last session when 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. Representatives from these associations and Pierce County did not testify last week.
Money was the reason for their opposition to Goodman's bill last year. One Pierce County official said that 330 kids in the county's court system fit the bill's criteria for mandatory legal representation. Providing lawyers for all of them would have cost the county an extra $500,000.
Goodman argued last week that providing attorneys for prospective and current foster children would actually save money in the long term because court cases would move through the system faster. In any event, his bill has the state covering 50 percent of the extra attorney costs. The bill also calls for two, two-year-long studies (April 1, 2015 to March, 3, 2017) in yet-to-be-selected counties that would measure the cost-effectiveness of this approach.
Meanwhile, representatives of the Washington Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a non-profit legal aid organization, voiced concerns about the bill. Rae Sherk, executive director of the Grays Harbor CASA, wondered whether the state support promised in Goodman’s bill would come from other social programs, like CASA.
After all, argued Grays Harbor CASA volunteer Clyde Lulham, CASA advocates spend more time with the children than the attorneys.