Olympia, Wash. - Lawmakers in Olympia are considering a bill aimed at protecting the rights of abused and neglected children in Washington state. The proposal, SB 6126, sponsored by the Chair of the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee, Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-University Place) was drafted after reporting by the KING 5 Investigators.
The series of reports, "Fostering Justice," exposed Washington law lags behind the country in providing legal advocates for foster children.
The majority of states guarantee that some or all foster children be appointed an attorney to give the child a voice in court proceedings and to protect the child’s legal rights.
Washington state has no such law on the books. Former foster children told KING not having that support made their experience in the system more fearful and confusing.
“I didn’t have anybody when I was in foster care,” said former foster child Amelia Turhune. In nine years the state moved Turhune to eight different places. She was abused in one home, ran away, became homeless and at one point was mistakenly placed in a mental institution.
“If I had an attorney at that point my attorney could have stepped in and could have said ‘no, this isn’t going to happen. This is where she needs to be.’ But I didn’t have that…I had no idea what my rights were.” said Turhune.
Sen. O’Ban’s bill would provide attorneys for all foster children whose parents have lost their legal parental rights due to abuse, neglect of abandonment. Of the 9,000 foster children in Washington state, 1500 kids would fit that criteria and receive counsel.
“The court must appoint an attorney for a child in a dependency proceeding within seventy-two hours of granting a petition to terminate the parent and child relationship,” wrote the bill authors.
Committee members considered testimony during the hearing from stakeholders including child legal advocates, foster child advocates, foster parents and former foster children who said kids need a voice in the chaotic process.
Wesley Robinson grew up in Tennessee where foster children are appointed counsel. He now resides with his mother in Washington.
"I think my peers in Washington also need (an attorney), just someone to be like, ‘hey I got your back, this is what's going on. I'm here to help you.’ So, I just hope you pass this bill. Thank you,” said Robinson.
Representatives from the Office of the Pierce County Executive and the Washington state Superior Court Judge’s Association testified against the bill. Both told lawmakers they weren’t against the idea, but the cost.
“The counties, the court budgets just don’t have the money to absorb this. They don’t have the money to absorb half of this. My county (Cowlitz), last year we cut 10 percent from our general fund budget. So there isn’t extra money available,” said Judge Steve Warning.
The proposed change in law would mandate that the state pay for half of the bill. Counties would pick up the other half.
"This is an issue where we really can't scrimp. We need to step up to the plate and provide the financial support for every children and it's time to do that," said Sen. O’Ban.
A hearing will be held on Thursday to consider a House version of the bill. Rep. Roger Goodman, (D-Kirkland).
A respected child research group, the Washington D.C.-based First Star, assigns grades to states on this issue in their annual report. Washington consistently garners an “F” grade. Only Indiana, Hawaii and Idaho earn lower marks.
Foster child advocates tell KING they want all foster children to be availed the resource of an attorney, but the provisions in this bill are at least a start.