Hawaii gets 'F' in legal aid for abused kids
NEW YORK » Fifteen states including Hawaii received failing grades on a first-of-its-kind report card assessing the legal representation provided to abused and neglected children as courts make potentially fateful decisions about whether to separate them from their families.
The report, being released at a Capitol Hill briefing today by Washington-based child advocacy group First Star, is sharply critical of states that do not require all children in these proceedings to be represented by their own attorneys.
It also says more states should join the 17 that require lawyers in these cases to represent the child's expressed wishes and ensure that those preferences are heard in court.
"In these proceedings, the family of a child can be created and/or destroyed based on the determination by the court," the report says. "And too often, the child, although most impacted by the court, has the least amount of input."
Since 1974, Congress has required states to appoint a representative -- often known as a guardian ad litem -- for any child involved in abuse and neglect proceedings. However, states have interpreted the federal law in varying ways; the First Star report said 16 do not have statutes requiring that these children be represented by their own attorneys in all child-protection proceedings.
"If you or I have a traffic accident, we can hire an attorney to represent our interests," said First Star's chief executive, Deborah Sams. "If a child has been the victim of abuse and neglect, they deserve the same right."
The report assigned grades based on several criteria, most importantly whether legal counsel for children is mandatory and whether that attorney is required to advocate for the child's expressed wishes. Other criteria included requiring specialized training in child-advocacy law, the attorneys' ethical responsibilities and the child's right to attend key court hearings.
Only five states earned A grades: Connecticut, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York and West Virginia.
The 15 states receiving an F were Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Washington.
Whytni Frederick, a First Star lawyer who was principal investigator for the report, stressed that the grades were based on analyzing state laws, not on day-to-day practices by state courts and agencies.
HOW STATES MEASURE UP
The grades assigned by First Star, a Washington-based child advocacy group, in a report assessing state laws regarding legal representation for children in abuse and neglect proceedings:
A: Connecticut, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, West Virginia
B: Arizona, Arkansas, District of Columbia, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia
C: California, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Wyoming
D: Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Montana, Oregon, Wisconsin
F: Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Washington