Foster kids gain right to attorney

By AmberMeade

I’m sure every foster kid’s experience and the ways he or she copes with it are different. My sister and I must’ve separated ourselves from the situation because almost everything between being taken to the group home—including what led to it—and moving in with our first and, luckily, only foster family, comes back in snippets.

But I have good faith that if it weren’t for the people handling our case—our guardian ad litem included—my sister and I would have been separated.

In Cook County, a GAL is an attorney automatically assigned to a child when there’s a claim of abuse or neglect. The GAL ensures a child’s wishes, including the possibility of returning home, are met, as is stated on the Public Guardian’s website. But ultimately, if the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services investigates and discovers that the parents are incapable, the state will take custody. A Washington state GAL serves the same purpose.

On March 1, the same day the Seattle Times reported it, the Washington Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of children residing in the state. The 9-0 decision said they have a right to legal representation, either by a GAL or “court-appointed special advocate,” during parental rights’ termination hearings, but that right will be “decided on a case-by-case basis.”

What constitutes case-by-case isn’t exactly clear, but that shouldn’t undermine the children’s interests that are immediately at stake once the parents’ ability to care for their child is questioned or jeopardized, especially if evidence proves the parents are incompetent.

Before this, Washington state law required kids 12 and older to know that they had the right to request an attorney. Even though there were probably some preteens and teenagers mature enough to understand the type of situation they were in, it was still a hell of a lot of responsibility to ask of these kids, especially while under the kind of emotional stress these experiences can cause. Fortunately, the Seattle Times article said the judge presiding over a case had final choice, though there was no guarantee one would be appointed when absolutely necessary. The article also mentioned the case that brought up this child-appointed-attorney issue.

Nyakat Luak’s children were taken away on four separate occasions. According to the court report, the first was Dec. 8, 2004, when Luak left her 4-year-old twins—referred to as M.S.R. and T.S.R.—home to tend to their 2-year-old sister, S.D.M., during which time a mattress caught on fire. The siblings were taken to a local hospital and put under “protective custody.”

Luak finally arrived almost seven hours later and reacted to caseworkers placing her children into a car the only way she knew how—with violence. She punched one in the head and kicked her in the leg, the report stated. From 2004–2009, Luak made threats and assaulted four more people, even in front of S.D.M.

The report stated Luak made little to no attempt to take responsibility for her explosive behavior, even after she was ordered to. Apparently she was “too busy” and “the rules didn’t apply to her.” Why the state let the children back into her home after the first incident is beyond me.

She completed parenting classes in January 2006, as stated in the Supreme Court decision. But that obviously wasn’t enough because during the five-year trial, the Washington Department of Social and Health Services removed her children three more times. Her parental rights were finally terminated in 2009.

While she proved herself unfit as a parent, Luak brought up a valuable point during the trial: Her children deserved counsel, but her argument was deemed irrelevant.

As I stated before, a Washington State Legislature’s bill explains if a GAL concluded a child should be “independently represented by counsel, the court may appoint an attorney to represent the child’s position.” However, that may not have been warranted. Besides, Luak’s case revolved around “whether the legal right of a parent to the care, custody, and control of his or her child should be terminated,” according to the report, and only a dependency proceeding “concerns the child’s ongoing welfare and encompasses all matters associated with the child’s care and well-being.” Needless to say, Luak is a perfect example of bad parenting.

The upside of my sister’s and my case was our well-being. According to Paula Bub Norasith, an attorney with the Cook County Public Guardian’s Office and my former GAL, in Illinois, whether or not the parents lose custody comes into question later, but the child’s welfare plays a role in every trial.

The first priority, as it should be, is the children.