I haven’t stopped thinking about Alena and Emma Mae since their story hit the news.
Maybe the story of these two young sisters has stayed with me because they could have been any of the 10 babies I cared for as a foster parent. Or maybe it’s because the facts are just that tragic.
Three-year-old Alena’s feet were amputated after her mom, who was high on meth, left her exposed in a blizzard. Alena’s baby sister, 18-month-old Emma Mae, froze to death by her side.
What comes next for a child like Alena? Can she return home? Does she have a father or family to take her in? Victims like Alena often enter foster care where the courts control their futures. But like the adults in her life, the American justice system may fail her, too.
Alena’s mother will have counsel in all criminal and dependency court proceedings. The department of child safety also will be represented. A child like Alena, however, has a 50-50 chance of having an attorney represent her interests, let alone constitutional due process or a host of rights the adults around her have.
In our legal system, the abused child is a bit player, while the abuser – and the abuser’s rights – take center stage.
This month Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a historic reform to help remedy that injustice. From this point forward, every abused child in court proceedings will have an attorney to safeguard their interests and rights under the law.
Arizona is not the first state to appoint counsel. But legal representation – coupled with a series of new reforms adopted in the past few years – should lead to major improvements in child safety.
Representation is a cornerstone of the American justice system. An attorney with a legal and ethical duty to the child is among the most important protections we can give both to a child who has been abandoned or abused and to a child who has been wrongly removed from a parent falsely accused.
On a practical level, research shows that children with attorney representation in their court cases exit foster care up to 3.5 times faster. Children who can safely return home do so, while children who need families are adopted quicker and with fewer delays.
Roughly half of all children who are abused to death in the United States are known to child protective services, but they are left in – or returned to – imminent danger. Most of these children are particularly vulnerable as they are under five years old. The lack of counsel is one reason that so many children are killed even when they have already been brought to the attention of authorities.
We can put a million laws on the books to ensure a child’s time in foster care is safe and temporary, but without an attorney to argue the law on a child’s behalf, the law means nothing.
Child counsel also brings long overdue accountability to government agencies that operate in the dark and hide mistakes under the cover of privacy laws. For example, Arizona law requires the Department of Child Services search for a child’s relatives and extended family right away. If this law is violated, the child’s attorney can immediately work to ensure compliance.
The criminally accused have the constitutional right to an attorney because their life and liberty is on the line. This is no less the case for abused children whose lives hang in the balance of court proceedings. Arizona’s adoption of counsel is one step closer to ensuring abuse victims have equal protection under the law.
These children are real. What they have endured is horrific, and working together, we can bring this young generation justice.
Darcy Olsen is the founder and CEO of Gen Justice, an award-winning charity working to mend the broken child protection system through nonpartisan policy changes, a pro bono Children’s Law Clinic and constitutional public interest litigation.