The foster care system in our country is in a crisis. The United States Children’s Bureau reported in 2017 that more than 250,000 children enter foster care each year. Of these children, 61 percent are removed under the guise of neglect and 34 percent are removed due to parental substance abuse. The remaining 5 percent of children are removed due to the caretaker’s inability to cope, physical abuse, child behavior problems, housing issues, parental incarceration, abandonment, sexual abuse, child disability, parental death, and voluntary relinquishment. Nearly 50 percent of those children are given an active case plan of not being returned to their parents. That is 125,000 children who are often lost in the rapid-flowing river of the foster care system for an indefinite amount of time.
Child Protective Services (CPS) is required to make reasonable efforts to prevent or eliminate the need for removal of children from the child’s parental home. However, the reality of what we have witnessed through years of advocacy in multiple jurisdictions is that this frequently does not occur. “Justice by geography” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot as it relates to child welfare. This is because the geographical location of where the dependency case occurs can make a difference between whether a child is able to remain with his or her parents or not. There is no uniform procedure or policy for when or how children are removed from their parents and in that subjective space there is a lot of room for error.
When a child is removed in Washington, a family team decision-making meeting (FTDM) occurs. An FTDM is meant to be a forum in which CPS and the parents sit down together to explore and discuss alternative options for the placement of the newly removed children. However, increasingly parents and their families all across the state are being told to “save it for court in a few days when you get a lawyer.” Rather than making decisions together, the parents arrive to learn that CPS has already decided. The decision is then revealed to the family as if somehow it was brought to fruition organically, with all parties involved.
As it stands now in Washington, parents only get to meet their court-appointed lawyer just a few minutes before court proceedings that may permanently affect a fundamental constitutional right. The first meeting with a lawyer occurs 72-hours after their children have already been removed from their care. Many parents have not seen their children in days. At that point the parent can either choose to go forward with a hearing, even though their lawyer has not had time to prepare, or ask for a continuance which will mean that their children will remain in state custody and away from them for a longer period of time. Parents are also rightfully suspicious of interactions with new people, given what has occurred, and so often it can take some time for their lawyers to build rapport. It’s not difficult to understand why parents experience a “fight or flight” reaction to CPS. Some parents are so discouraged and hopeless that they never show up to court again after the initial hearing.
Once children are placed into foster care, they often report feeling a lack of control over their lives. Some studies on the knowledge, attitudes, and participation of children after dependency court hearings, found that 54 percent of children did not know the outcome of the hearing, and 37 percent of children felt not believed or unheard—a substantial proportion. Until recently, foster children in Washington state did not have right to an attorney themselves. This has recently shifted, though most children still are not appointed an attorney until they have been legally free from their parents for six months or more, depending on the child’s age. Legal representation is crucial for children in foster care. The lack of a right to counsel for every child in a child welfare case in Washington means that children do not have an advocate to ensure their involvement and voice is heard for decisions that involve their safety and permanence.