OLYMPIA, Wash. – The Senate Ways and Means Committee has not yet scheduled a hearing on a bill aimed at protecting the rights of abused and neglected children in Washington state. If that doesn’t happen by Tuesday, the landmark bill will die.
The proposal, SB 6126, sponsored by the Chair of the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee, Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-University Place) was drafted after reporting by the KING 5 Investigators. The series of reports, "Fostering Justice," exposed how Washington law lags behind the country in providing legal advocates for foster children.
The bill unanimously made it out of the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee and successfully was voted out of the House Judiciary Committee. Then it went to lawmakers controlling the money. On Saturday the House Appropriations Committee scheduled a hearing on the bill for Monday.
If the Senate Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Sen. Andy Hill (R-Redmond), doesn’t do the same, the bill will be dead.
The child legal advocacy group, Columbia Legal Services, has lobbied hard to get the bill passed.
“If this bill does not pass it would be a devastating blow to the most vulnerable foster children who need legal advocacy to get them out of the system and into a permanent home, said Jill Malat, a staff attorney for the Children and Youth Project at Columbia Legal Services.
"This is an issue where we really can't scrimp. We need to step up to the plate and provide the financial support for every children and it's time to do that," said Sen. O’Ban.
The bill aims to begin correcting the lack of legal advocacy for the 9,000 foster children in Washington. The majority of states in the US guarantee that some or all foster children be appointed an attorney to give the child a voice in court proceedings and to protect the child’s legal rights.
Washington state has no such law on the books. Former foster children told KING not having that support made their experience in the system more fearful and confusing.
“I didn’t have anybody when I was in foster care,” said former foster child Amelia Turhune. In nine years the state moved Turhune to eight different places. She was abused in one home, ran away, became homeless and at one point was mistakenly placed in a mental institution.
“If I had an attorney at that point my attorney could have stepped in and could have said ‘no, this isn’t going to happen. This is where she needs to be.’ But I didn’t have that…I had no idea what my rights were,” said Turhune.
Sen. O’Ban’s bill would provide attorneys for all foster children whose parents have lost their legal parental rights due to abuse, neglect or abandonment. Of the 9,000 foster children in Washington state, 1,500 kids would fit that criteria and receive counsel.
Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland), sponsored a similar bill in the House.
Representatives from the Office of the Pierce County Executive and the Washington state Superior Court Judge’s Association testified against the bill. Both told lawmakers they weren’t against the idea, but the cost.
“The counties, the court budgets just don’t have the money to absorb this. They don’t have the money to absorb half of this. My county (Cowlitz), last year we cut 10 percent from our general fund budget. So there isn’t extra money available,” said Judge Steve Warning.
The proposed change in law would mandate that the state pay for half of the bill. Counties would pick up the other half.
A respected child research group, the Washington D.C.-based First Star, assigns grades to states on this issue in their annual report. Washington consistently garners an “F” grade. Only Indiana, Hawaii and Idaho earn lower marks.
We’re not asking for something outlandish. The vast majority of states already provide foster kids attorneys as a matter of course," said Malat. “When people from other states hear that Washington state doesn’t provide lawyers for foster kids, they’re shocked.”