MIAMI (AP) — When Lauren entered foster care at age 16, she was too scared to go to the court hearings that were deciding her future. She was wary of the judge and struggled to navigate the complex legal system of dependency court on top of adjusting to life in a group home.
But Lauren's attorney eventually persuaded her to attend, convincing her of how important it was for the judge to hear about Lauren's experiences in her own words.
Having legal help like that is uncommon for the nation's more than 400,000 foster children. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and more than a dozen other states require that foster children have appointed attorneys. But compliance is sporadic because of shrinking budgets. And Florida has a pilot program that advocates are pushing other states to try.
"These are abused and neglected kids, for whom the most life-altering decisions will be made in juvenile courts across the country ... and yet so many kids are denied this most basic right every day," said attorney Ira Lustbader, associate director for the advocacy group Children's Rights.
Lauren was appointed an attorney a few years ago after a federal court judge ruled — in response to a lawsuit — that foster children in two metropolitan Atlanta counties, DeKalb and Fulton, are entitled to be represented. It's a ruling that supporters, including the American Bar Association, are using to build a national campaign for children to have legal counsel.
When Lauren fought with another girl and was charged simple battery and assault in adult criminal court, her attorney, Aviance Jenkins, was there to give the judge details about Lauren's history in foster care in DeKalb County. The charges were eventually dropped.
"It's important to let (foster children) know they have a voice and there's someone willing to think on their behalf," said Lauren, who is now 18. Her lawyer only gave her first name to protect her from the stigma others sometimes associate with being in foster care.
In the past five years, DeKalb County grew from two lawyers representing foster children to a department with 11 attorneys, plus investigators and paralegals. The average caseload before the judge's ruling was about 850. Now, it is now between 550 and 650 and every child is seen four to six times a year. The average amount of time children in the county spend in foster care has dropped from nine months to less than three, according to statistics given by its director.
Fulton County went from four lawyers for 2,000 kids to about 17 lawyers.
Florida and other states say children with attorneys do move through the system faster, which could save money. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently awarded a $5 million grant to the University of Michigan to study how to better connect foster children with legal help. The American Bar Association recently wrote legislation and is urging lawmakers in several states, including Florida, to require attorneys for all foster children.
A pilot program in Palm Beach County, Fla., showed children with effective counsel in dependency cases found permanent homes at about twice the rate of unrepresented children, according to a 2008 study by Chapin Hall, the University of Chicago's research arm. That program, which has 14 attorneys with an average caseload of 35 kids, works with about 800 foster children a year, costing taxpayers about $1.7 million. But advocates say that's less than what the state would pay for extended stays in foster care. Florida spends between $150 to $200 a day to care for each child.
Mississippi and South Carolina require attorneys for children, but experts say the law is rarely followed. The decision is at the judge's discretion in a dozen other states including Indiana and Maine, according to a study by First Star and the Children's Advocacy Institute.
And even if states were forced — similar to the Georgia counties — to provide attorneys, it still could be a waste of money unless strict oversight ensures the cases aren't assigned to underpaid, fledgling attorneys, advocates say. In some states, attorneys are so overloaded that they don't have time to meet with the children they represent.
"I knew personally what it was like to represent 1,000 children a year," said Trenny Stovall, director of the DeKalb Child Advocacy Center. She was an attorney in Fulton County, Ga., before more lawyers were added.
"You woke up every day and prayed that there was nothing on the news about a child that you may or may not have ever seen but were responsible for representing," Stovall said.
Some say that ideally, foster children should have both an attorney and a court-appointed volunteer — which are common in most states — to help.
Attorneys can focus on preparing for hearings and filing motions. It would allow volunteers to spend more time with children, assessing the foster homes, becoming a trusted confidante and passing that information to the attorney.
"It would be an unaffordable and unreasonable expectation that a lawyer could be available on the phone, on call or go visit whenever a child needs you," said Michael Piraino, chief executive officer of Seattle-based Court Appointed Special Advocate Association. The program has over 70,000 volunteers nationally and represents about 240,000 foster children. Volunteers typically deal with three children.
Florida and North Carolina require both the court-appointed volunteer and the volunteer's attorney work on cases — but such requirements are rare and some critics say there isn't enough money for both.
Advocates are also pushing attorneys to take foster kids' cases as pro bono work. In Philadelphia, more than 300 attorneys handle cases for about 900 foster kids a year for free at the Support Center for Child Advocates.