The section edition of A Child’s Right to Counsel: A National Report Card on Legal Representation for Abused and Neglected Children[pdf] has been released by First Star and the CAI and Maryland ranks higher than D.C. or Virginia. The report is primarily concerned with what kind of representation kids get when they interact with the child welfare system. The introduction numbers are sobering.
Over 300,000 American children entered foster care in the last fully reported year of 2006. Of the 289,000 children who exited from the system that year, only about half were reunified with their parents. The parents of 79,000 children were found to be unfit by clear and convincing evidence and had their parental rights terminated. Only 51,000 children were adopted. The remainder of these children stay in the foster care system, now numbering over 500,000 nationwide—most living in state-provided care or with relatives.
The report grades largely based on the assumption that the best situation is for the child to have an actual attorney appointed who will stay with the child through the process and for that attorney to be required to petition based on the wishes of the child. Both DC and Virginia score well on most items but falls short on a sticking point for the reports authors: if the appointed guardian disagrees with the child’s wishes they have to notify the court about the disagreement but don’t necessarily need to honor those wishes. Maryland doesn’t have that exception.
It’s an interesting position and I’m not sure where I fall on it. The report says the median age is ten and asserts those children are often mature enough to clearly articulate their needs and wishes. However it also reminds us that many of these children have been neglected and mistreated, a situation that may not put them in the most objective state of mind to choose what’s best for themselves. Then of course, they’re also children: not notorious for making the best choices.
However you can also make a very reasonable point that nobody in those proceedings have the same level of interest in the outcome as the children themselves. Clearly at some point there has to be someone weighing the child’s interest against what is in the actual best interest of the child, but should the person weighing those sides be the appointed guardian ad litem or the court?