Washington’s foster children experience ‘justice by geography,’ report finds

Foster children in Washington State get unequal treatment depending on where they live.

Foster children in Washington State get unequal treatment depending on where they live.

Inconsistent practices and policies in Washington child abuse and neglect courts leave many children without an advocate in decisions that shape every aspect of their lives. Decisions made in these court hearings include where a child will live, whether they can see their family, and what services and supports they can receive.

Grays Harbor County Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Director Anne McEvoy says when a child comes into care in Grays Harbor County there has to be a Shelter Care Hearing within 72 hours.

“At the hearing the child is assigned either a guardian ad litem or a CASA volunteer,” McEvoy said. “In this county it’s about a 50-50 mix.”

McEvoy said CASA advocates are all volunteers and have a case load of only one or two kids — guardian ad litems have a much greater case load. Both are legal parties to the case, and can make motions concerning the best interests of the child.

“CASA volunteers have more requirements to benefit the kids,” she said. “They visit the kids at least once a month, prepare written reports and show up for every hearing.”

Either way, a foster child in Grays Harbor County has an advocate from almost the start. Representation by an attorney is another matter. According to a new report from The Access to Counsel Project at the UW School of Law, many children in the state continue to receive “justice by geography.”

The report, “Defending Our Children: A Child’s Access to Justice in Washington State,” includes data that children in 12 Washington counties automatically are appointed an attorney at a certain age, while remaining counties have no automatic appointment process.

Children in Grays Harbor County are among the fortunate — they are automatically appointed an attorney once the child reaches the age of 12. The report also found children received the best representation when they are appointed both a CASA volunteer and an attorney. According to the report, less than 1 percent of children without an attorney were appointed one through the current process.

“The data shows what many have been saying for years: the system is broken,” said Alicia LeVezu, author of the report and Equal Justice Works Fellow, at UW Law’s Children and Youth Advocacy Clinic. “We need to start universally appointing attorneys for children who are the most vulnerable participants in these court proceedings. For too long, the voices of children in foster care have been ignored and overlooked. We must appoint children representation so that their voices can be heard.”