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Enforcing a Right to Counsel for Children: The Time is Now

By Catherine Krebs – October 27, 2010

On Thursday, August 5, 2010, at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago, Illinois, the Children’s Rights Litigation Committee presented the program Enforcing a Right to Counsel for Children: The Time is Now. Every day, children are removed from their homes and placed into state custody. Depending on the state in which they live, they may not be represented by a lawyer in life-impacting legal proceedings.

This program explored the role a lawyer should play for a child in dependency court under the ABA Model Rules of Professional Responsibility and what barriers exist to allowing lawyers to represent children. Speakers included Judge Rosemary Barkett, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit; Diane Geraghty, Civitas ChildLaw Center, Loyola University School of Law; Hilarie Bass, vice chair of the Section of Litigation; Trevor Wade, former foster youth, Denver, Colorado; Michael Dale of the Nova Southeastern University Law Center; Trenny Stovall of the DeKalb County Child Advocacy Center; and Angela Vigil of the Section of Litigation’s Children’s Rights Litigation Committee.

Panelists had a vigorous discussion about why children need lawyers and what role lawyer should have in cases. As one panelist noted, “When the state comes with all of its power to remove you from your home, who do you want standing with you? You would choose a lawyer. What you want for a child is what you also want for yourself.” Michael Dale addressed the concern that if children have lawyers who are client-directed, children may choose to argue for dangerous outcomes. He noted that this type of argument “denigrates the professionalism of lawyers.” Lawyering includes the process of counseling and the provision of guidance to clients. Panelists noted that a guardian ad litem does not have a confidential relationship with a child client, but a lawyer does. Due to the establishment of trust through this confidential relationship, children are more willing to work with lawyers to establish the goals of representation.

Diane Geraghty discussed her representation of a 13-year-old girl who noted at the end of her case that due to her representation, “I had my day in court; I understood the outcome better; I counted.”

This panel really illustrated how legal representation provides a child with a voice. It can be the difference between a future a child embraces and one he or she rejects. For the children, the time is now.

To read more about this program, visit ABA Now.

Catherine Krebs is committee director of the ABA Section of Litigation's Children's Rights Committee in Washington, D.C.

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