Washington Takes the First Step in Correcting Its F Grade

Candelaria Murillo, Children and Youth Project

Washington can take no pride in getting an F, yet that is the grade Washington State received in a national report card that evaluated state laws and how well they protect vulnerable foster children and youth. Today, the state took a step towards a better grade.

Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill, SB 6126, that will help vulnerable foster children and youth have legal protection and assistance in the cases that govern their lives. This bill will provide attorneys for foster children and youth six months after parental rights have been terminated. It will also make it easier to request an attorney on behalf of a foster child or youth. Although this is just one of the many changes needed to improve Washington’s grade overall, this bill does give about 1,000 children and youth legal advocacy in the most intrusive of legal proceedings and that deserves a celebration. We are thrilled that the long nights our advocates spent stalking the halls of Olympia, with steadfast allies including The Mockingbird Society, Partners for our Children and Joel Benoliel, paid off. This bill will have a huge impact on the lives of foster children and youth.

When parental rights are terminated, a child or youth becomes a ward of the state. He or she may be in the state’s custody for up to 21 years and may face separation from siblings, multiple placements, involuntary commitment, or even jail time for not following court orders. Without an attorney, these foster children and youth can have little or no say in any of these situations. An attorney can help these children and youth make their voices heard as they navigate the legal system. With the assistance of a lawyer, vulnerable youth will be able to participate in decisions affecting their lives. They will also find permanent homes faster, according to a study from of the University of Chicago, which will result in lower costs for the state.

 This bill has been many years in the making. Advocates first introduced a bill in 2008 that would have created a pilot project to provide attorneys to all adolescents in a few Washington counties.  The bills presented over subsequent years evolved and built awareness.  When Governor Inslee signed ESSB 6126 today, it marked a major milestone in seven years of legislative advocacy.   

Although this state can still improve its grades, it is clear that foster children and youth advocates, stakeholders, the prime sponsors of the bills, Sen. Steve O’Ban and Rep. Roger Goodman, the legislators who unanimously voted for the bill, and especially the youth who so passionately testified at legislative hearings, have contributed to a historic effort.