On Tuesday, June 4, the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth sponsored briefing on Right to Counsel in Child Abuse and Neglect Dependency. The focus of this meeting was to educate individuals about the importance of high-quality legal representation for children and parents. The five panelists included Frank Utomo and Levi Zwick-Tapley, former foster care youth, Murphy B. Henry, Washington DC child welfare attorney, Judge Abby Abinanti, Yurok Tribal Court Judge, and NYU Law Professor Martin Guggenheim.

Henry asserted that quality counsel is integral for children to interact with the child and perform more educated advocacy. Utomo and Zwick-Tapley supported this as they described their experiences with counsel. They are both now involved with the National Foster Youth Institute to ensure every child in foster care has high-quality representation. Judge Abinanti urged listeners to support high-quality counsel for children and parents in tribal communities. She explained that counsels must be aware of the intricacies of different cultures, such as the emphasis on immediate family in tribal culture and how the foster care system disrupts this. Professor Guggenheim claimed that the call for counsel for parents had been muted. He continued that, unless there is a compelling reason to separate, parents and children have a right to remain together. The only way to avoid unjust separation, according to Professor Guggenheim, is parental counsel.

In addition to the five panelists, the briefing presented First Star Institute’s A Child’s Right to Counsel: A National Report Card on Legal Representation for Abused and Neglected Children. The report card provides updated grades of state laws regarding the legal representation of children in child welfare cases. The report’s highlights are as follows:

• 29 states are A or B grade status (in 2008, there were 22 A and B grade states)
• 11 states are C grade status (in 2008, there were 14 C grade states)
• 11 states are D or F grade status (in 2008, there were 15 D or F grade states)
Although marked improvements have occurred over the last decade, the panelists urged for high-quality counsel for parents and children in conjunction with the new federal funding available to states to claim reimbursement for some of the cost of children’s counsel.