October 01, 2016

Congressional Briefing Highlights Children’s Right to Counsel

Sally Small Inada

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Access to justice for a child requires access to counsel—It seems simple, yet many children go unrepresented in their legal proceedings. Seeking change, a congressional briefing was held September 12, 2016 in Washington, DC.

The briefing, sponsored by Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA), focused on the need for children’s legal representation in court during child welfare, juvenile justice and immigration proceedings.  While children in some of these proceedings are provided an attorney, many go unrepresented as a judge decides the outcome.

ABA Center on Children and the Law attorney and Capacity Building Center for Courts Director Jennifer Renne called for children’s’ “right to be heard and access to justice,” echoing common themes from earlier panelists.   “Robbing children of their voice generates mistrust in the judicial system,” Renne said, while “97 percent of kids with attorneys said they were glad they came to court.”  Renne was citing research on children’s involvement in child welfare proceedings in New Jersey conducted by the ABA Center on Children and the Law.

National Juvenile Defender Center Executive Director Kim Dvorchak talked of “plea mills” in Colorado where children without lawyers were pressured to take plea bargains, not understanding the ramifications of accepting the plea. Dvorchak said “state laws must change to ensure early and automatic appointment of counsel for youth.”

Kids in Need of Defense attorney Jennifer Podkul agreed, saying “I think counsel is imperative, especially for unaccompanied minors.”  She said “Immigrant children are coming [to the US] for safety and to reunify with family,” but end up fighting their own immigrant court case, often without representation. Podkul noted, “A child is five times more likely to win their case if they are represented.” 

Panelist and former alumni of the Florida foster care system, Derrick Riggins talked about his difficulties in foster care: “I did not have an attorney to represent me. A lot of my ordeal could have been avoided...if my voice was heard. Youth in care have a right to have their voice heard through the process.”

Other panelists included: Kendall Marlowe M.S.W., J.D., National Association of Counsel for Children, Clark Peters Ph.D., J.D., A.M., University of Missouri, and David Kelly J.D., M.A. Administration for Children, Youth and Families.

The briefing drew almost 100 people, many of them congressional staffers. Panelists and audience members discussed next steps, including reauthorization of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and legislation around a child’s right to counsel in immigration cases. The Children’s Bureau has committed to issuing new guidance articulating the administration’s position that every child and parent should have counsel throughout a child welfare case, due any day.  

Learn more: 

Watch the briefing

Download the materials

— Sally Small Inada, CLP Contributor