OLYMPIA — The state Senate is once again weighing a bill to require legal representation for foster children, a proposal that social-service advocates consider as a top priority.
The Senate Human Services & Corrections Committee held a Monday morning hearing on the proposal, which sailed through the state House last year but stalled in the Senate amid cost concerns.
Washington is one of 16 states that does not ensure all children in dependency cases are represented by an attorney. Instead, judges can decide whether to give children a lawyer. Often, they don’t.
A recent report by First Star, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, ranked Washington 48th in the nation for protection of legal rights of foster youth.
Advocates say that leaves many children voiceless in what could be the most important decisions of their lives.
At Monday’s hearing, Sharonta Pickering, a foster child and high school student, described the difference an attorney made in her case.
“When I first set foot in court, I looked at the judge and thought he really didn’t care about me, my opinion or anything like that,” Pickering said. “After I was given an attorney, I really felt for the first time that my voice was being heard and that the adults in the room were listening to my opinion and it mattered to them.”
The sponsor of Senate Bill 6126, University Place Republican Steve O’Ban, said, “Since we have decided to have these crucial decisions about the most powerless of our children decided in court, they need their own advocate.”
But O’Ban may have some trouble convincing his GOP colleagues to support the bill.
Republicans, who control the Senate, stopped a similar proposal last year (House Bill 1285) due to cost concerns.
On Monday, officials with Pierce County and the Superior Court Judges Association cited those same concerns.
“The counties, the court budget just don’t have the money to absorb this,” said Steve Warning, a Cowlitz County Superior Court judge. “We don’t have the money to absorb half of it.”
Casey Trupin of Columbia Legal Services, which supports the bill, said it would cost about $2 million per year to implement.
But, said Trupin and other supports, other states’ experiences indicate the bill would actually save money by shortening time in foster care.