Giving every child a voice
Imagine if you can: You are 11 years old. One day at school, strangers come to talk with you. They tell you that after school...
Special to The Times
Imagine if you can: You are 11 years old. One day at school, strangers come to talk with you. They tell you that after school you won't be going home. You will be going with them and they will be taking you to a new place to live.
Your mother is dead. Your father is arrested because he killed her. There is a part of you that is in shock. There is a part of you that is not surprised. There is a part of you that has always known it would happen. Someday. Today is that someday.
Imagine further: You have four younger brothers and sisters. You have taken care of them for as long as you can remember: through the times when your mother was being beaten and you had to hide; through the times that your mother ran away because she couldn't take it anymore and your dad took off after her; through the times that she was there and happy to be with you because somehow times were good; through the times she was there but drinking.
You ask the strangers, what about my brothers and sisters? They tell you not to worry about them right now. You are placed in a foster home. You ask your social worker, where are my brothers and sisters? She tells you that they had to go to different homes because that's the way it works when a home can't be found where everyone can be together — which happens a lot, she says.
Maybe the home you are in has good people in it. Maybe it doesn't. Maybe it's near your old school. Or, maybe it isn't. Maybe you've been moved to a totally new place and you don't have your old friends or know what is going on in class at your new school. You wonder about the rest of your family. Has anyone looked for you? You are lost.
You don't even know that there have been hearings about you and your siblings. You don't even know how all this works.
You don't know that there is a state law that says that it's presumed to be in your best interest to live with your siblings and, if you can't, it is presumed you should visit them. You don't know that there is a federal law that could be used to keep you in your old school.
You don't know that the state has a duty to search for relatives and look for your family to ask them if you can live with them. You don't know about the state's budget woes and the fact that the caseworker hasn't told you any of this because she believes that no matter what the law says, she doesn't have the money to pay for the van that could take you to see your brothers and sisters, and she has too many cases and doesn't have time to do a relative search.
You don't know that there is a federal law that requires every child to have a voice in court. You don't know that your state breaks that law for many children in its care.
Is your imagination exhausted yet? It is exhausting to imagine, but even more debilitating to live this scenario. And yet, this is the reality for many children in Washington who have been removed from their homes because of allegations of abuse or neglect or any number of plain old family tragedies.
Some of them get volunteers or paid professionals whose job it is to watch over them and tell the court what is in their best interest. Some of them get attorneys whose job it is to tell the court what they want. But many of them get no one. And they don't even know that they have the right to anything else.
This is why Washington received an "F" on a report card by First Star, a nonprofit watchdog group out of Washington, D.C.
We are failing our children when we don't give them a voice in the proceedings that place them at the center of the controversy. Parents have the absolute right to an attorney under state law. The state has an attorney through the Attorney General's Office. The child does not have an absolute right to an attorney or any kind of voice.
First Star believes that every child needs well-trained legal advocacy, an attorney who understands how to build an attorney-client relationship with a child so that the child can say what he or she needs, an attorney who will show up and advocate for that.
Now imagine if that were real. Imagine if we joined the other 34 states that require legal counsel. Imagine if we joined the other 49 states that require at least some voice for children.
Hopefully, we will do the right thing, and not just because we are embarrassed that West Virginia and Mississippi got an A and we got an F. Imagine if we did the right thing because we understood that children need to have their own voice heard. Imagine if we listened.
Lisa Kelly is a professor of law and director of the Children and Youth Advocacy Clinic at the University of Washington School of Law.
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.