Capitol Hill Briefing Tomorrow on Counsel for Kids, Parents in Child Welfare Courts

Capitol ViewA group of legislative caucuses on vulnerable youth and on legal issues are jointly offering a congressional briefing tomorrow on a hot topic of late in child welfare: the legal rights of parents and children in dependency court proceedings.

The briefing – “Right to Counsel in Child Abuse and Neglect Dependency” – will be at 11 a.m. on Tuesday in the Rayburn House Office Building, Room 2325.

“The purpose of the briefing is to educate stakeholders about the importance of high-quality legal representation for all parties in child welfare case, to review where we are in the Right To Counsel movement, [and] discuss recent developments and opportunities to advance the cause,” said Amy Harfeld, national policy director for the Children’s Advocacy Institute (CAI).

While a growing number of states have guaranteed legal counsel to both parents and children, there is no federal guarantee for either party. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) requires kids be represented in court, but does not require it be by a lawyer.

“Children face an 18-year sentence in state custody, aka foster care, through child welfare removals,” said Harfeld, in an email to The Chronicle. “Their basic civil and constitutional rights are at stake, yet unlike criminal defendants who receive counsel to protect their liberty interests, these child victims have no national right to counsel. Where is the justice in that?”

Thirty states and the District of Columbia guarantee lawyers for children, and 38 states and D.C. guarantee counsel for parents. But the level of quality varies widely, and especially for parents, counsel might not be guaranteed until later in their case, when a child has already been removed.

CAI and the Los Angeles-based nonprofit First Star Institute partner on a national report card that periodically grades the quality of children’s counsel. In the fourth report card, released today, 11 states received a D or F. That is down from 16 states in 2012, and 21 states on the report card released in 2007.

“We are closer than ever to achieving a national right to counsel for dependent children, but we’re not there yet,” Harfeld said. “The remaining gap is up to the dozen or so ‘D’ and ‘F’ states as well as Congress and the federal courts to close.”

That right to counsel movement scored a major victory at the end of last year when the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) opened up new federal funds for counsel. Since 2004, the agency had expressly prohibited states from claiming funds for legal counsel to parents and children through Title IV-E, the entitlement program that comprises most federal child welfare spending.

In December, through a simple change in the Child Welfare Policy Manual, HHS said that states could now seek a federal match through the entitlement for legal fees to support indigent parents and children.

The panel for tomorrow’s briefing will be moderated by Prudence Beidler Carr, director of the American Bar Association Center for Children and the Law. There are five panelists:

  • Frank Utomo and Levi Zwick-Tapley, former foster youths who now work with the National Foster Youth Institute
  • Yurok Tribal Court Judge Abby Abinanti
  • New York University Law Professor Martin Guggenheim
  • Murphy B. Henry, an attorney and child welfare specialist who represents parents, caretakers and children

The briefing is co-sponsored by the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth, the Congressional Caucus on Crime Prevention and Youth Development, and the Congressional Access to Legal Aid Caucus.

Note: This article was updated on June 4.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.