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August 21, 2016 Practice Points

Access to Justice for Children in Washington State

By Sharon McCartney

The University of Washington School of Law has released the report “Defending Our Children: A Child's Access to Justice in Washington State” which underscores the importance of legal representation for children in foster care and the injustice of "justice by geography." For most youth in state care, access to legal representation in the state of Washington depends largely on the county in which the youth is in foster care. The inequity of this approach is obvious. No youth should have to rely on the serendipity of location for the benefits of legal counsel.

The state is represented by legal counsel and the parent(s) have access to legal counsel. The child, too, must be represented. All foster youth in the custody of the state of Washington deserve equal access to legal representation. With 414,000 children in foster care nationwide, legislators, attorneys, policy makers, and the public must realize that the rights of children demand legal representation in foster care court proceedings. Representation is not just a nice thing—it is a justice thing. Representation of youth in state care should be mandated in and across all states.

Sadly, the irony of endorsing the Sixth Amendment right to counsel for adult criminal defendants while denying that same right to children in foster care is missed. No one would question that a victim of neglect and abuse removed from their family and placed under state custody would treasure the guidance and support of a highly trained attorney. In the upheaval, separation, and emotional desolation that is a part of any youth's journey in foster care, a child needs someone literally on their side. Only by guaranteeing competent and effective legal representation for all youth in foster care can we ensure that the legal rights of all foster children are protected.

Sharon McCartney is a Medicaid and child welfare consultant in Washington, D.C. Daniel Pollack is a professor in the School of Social Work at Yeshiva University in New York, New York.

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