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Inslee signs bill to fund pilot project on legal representation for foster kids

Washington will fund a pilot project that will provide legal representation to foster kids in two counties where those kids would otherwise be left navigating court proceedings with no attorney. 

Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill Thursday — Senate Bill 5890 — that makes improvements to the state's foster care system, including a total of $1.4 million over the next two years for the project to test legal representation for foster kids. 

"We are definitely considering this a win," says Alicia LeVezu of the UW School of Law's children and youth advocacy clinic. 

Inslee also signed a separate bill that creates the Department of Children, Youth and Families, which will combine multiple agencies overseeing services for vulnerable children into one. 

Currently, Washington has no law that requires abused or neglected children to have an attorney during dependency proceedings. In Spokane County, children are automatically appointed counsel starting at age 12, but other many other counties don't have similar rules or policies. That can effectively leave kids without a voice during critical conversations about where they will live and their future, according to several lawyers, children's advocates and state lawmakers. 

Rep. Noel Frame (D-Seattle) sponsored a bill this year that would have granted all kids over 2 an attorney in dependency hearings, but the bill failed to make it out of the legislature. Instead, the state will study the effects that legal representation would have on foster kids in four smaller counties in the state — Grant, Lewis, Douglas and Whatcom. Two of those counties will have attorneys provided for kids, and the other two will act as a control group for the state to quantify differences in experiences for children represented by an attorney and for children or are not. 

The funding for the project goes until December 31, 2019, at which point the Washington state center for court research will report its findings to the legislature. 

The UW's LeVezu authored a report on the topic last year. Researchers in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties found that children had an 84 percent change of having their opinion shared with the court if both a Court Appointed Special Advocate (volunteers that represent children's best interests) and an attorney advocated for kids. Yet less than 20 percent had their opinion shared in court with only a CASA but no attorney. 

Many attorneys argue that children need attorneys so that they may have a greater chance of staying with family members or to achieve permanency, rather than languish in the foster care system. Only attorneys can file motions in court on behalf of children. 

"This study will provide critical information for lawmakers about the importance of attorneys in reducing system-wide inefficiencies and expenses," Hillary Madsen, staff attorney at Columbia Legal Services, said in a statement. 

LeVezu says this state study is exciting because it will look at permanency outcomes, child welfare indicators and overall child well-being. 

"I'm hoping it will demonstrate the positive impacts of these kids having advocates," she says. 

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