Calling it a true common-sense measure, Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, provided testimony today in favor of Senate Bill 6126, his landmark bill to restructure the way foster youth are represented in a court of law. The proposal would – for the first time in state history – give minors in the state’s foster-care system a voice regarding their own destiny.
“The system we have is not perfect,” acknowledged O’Ban, himself an attorney, “but assigning an attorney to advocate on behalf of the child is the best way to work within our country’s judicial system. As it stands now in these matters, the state is well-represented and the biological and foster parents are well-represented, meaning only the child has no legal advocate. That’s why we need this bill.”
SB 6126 would require a court to appoint an attorney for a child in a dependency proceeding within 72 hours of granting a petition to legally terminate the parent-child relationship. It would also create a pilot program in two counties to study the effects of the new law, as well as require a university-based child-welfare research entity to evaluate those effects.
“This is one of the most important issues I’m championing this session,” added O’Ban, who represents the 28th District in west Pierce County. “Children have been languishing in the foster-care system for far too long, and my bill would finally give them a personal advocate to accelerate their cases and more quickly return them to their families or place them with a new, adoptive family.”
During public testimony before the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee, which is led by O’Ban, high school junior Sharonta Pickering – herself a foster youth – testified about her experience within the complex state system. She was one of nearly a half-dozen minors who spoke in favor of O’Ban’s bill.
“When I first set foot in court, I looked at the judge and thought he really didn’t care about me, my opinion or anything like that,” Pickering said. “After I was given an attorney, I really felt for the first time that my voice was being heard and that the adults in the room were listening to my opinion and it mattered to them.”
The Mockingbird Society’s Wesley Robinson, also a former foster child, testified about the dramatic difference having a personal legal advocate makes to the child.
“As a foster child in Tennessee, I was given an attorney to help me through the system. He helped me at each of my court appearances, and even helped me when I wanted to visit my mom here in Washington. After I relocated here, I realized how much better off I was having had that legal voice in the courtroom,” Robinson said. “Having an attorney to represent me made all the difference, and I think my peers in the Washington state foster-care system also need somebody who has their back.”
O’Ban added that the state watchdog for children, the Office of the Family and Children‘s Ombuds, said SB 6126 is its top priority for fixing the state foster-care system this year. The Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee will hold a work session on foster care from 10 a.m. to noon Jan. 27.