…And We’ll Keep on Fighting ’til the End: Spotlighting Legislative Champions of Counsel for Kids

Right to counsel policy reform depends on the leadership and support of legislative champions to flourish. When a learned and respected politician guides a bill through the lawmaking process, it builds targeted support among influential legislators, coalesces agreement among committee staffers, and eventually helps secure the votes needed to pass a bill into law. Legislative advocacy may be confusing and unfamiliar terrain for child welfare practitioners pursuing right to counsel policy reform in their state. The expertise of a skilled legislative champion is invaluable to developing a large, bipartisan coalition in support of a right to counsel bill. The coalition must include more than other legislators; in many states, the high turnover of elected officials means that staffers have significant influence in the crafting and passage of legislation. Navigating this political minefield requires the guidance and collaboration of a leader — a champion — who understands both the policy issue and the dynamics of the statehouse.

In this issue of The Guardian, we spotlight legislative champions from Arizona, Washington, and Florida who championed children’s right to counsel in 2021.


In Arizona, Sen. Nancy Barto sponsored Senate Bill 1391 (2021). The bill shifts the state’s dependency child legal representation system from a best interest model to a model guaranteeing client-directed legal counsel to every child and permits the appointment of a guardian ad litem that must be an attorney. The bill was signed into law by Governor Ducey in April 2021. To achieve this victory, Sen. Barto ensured the bill stayed on track and scheduled for committees, while educating and galvanizing her peers to vote in favor of children’s right to counsel. She says,

“As some of the most vulnerable within our purview, the rights of dependent children should no longer be overlooked. They deserve to have their rights protected, especially within the agency whose stated goal is achieving their best interest and outcome — but that is literally impossible if they are denied the protection and advocacy professional legal representation can provide on their behalf.”

Senator Nancy Barto


In Washington State, Rep. Noel Frame championed House Bill 1219 (2021), which requires the appoint-ment of client-directed legal counsel for children aged eight and older, and was signed into law by Governor Inslee in May 2021. The provisions requiring appointment of attorneys will be phased in on a county-by-county basis over a six-year period, with full implementation by January 1, 2027. The legislation also mandates the convening of a children’s legal representation standards workgroup to update standards of practice, generate training guidelines, and establish caseload limits. Additionally, the work-group must submit recommendations to the legislature on research and best practices regarding the legal representation of children under eight years of age. Rep. Frame worked with lawmakers and coali-tions of experts with lived experience to explicate details of the bill to lawmakers unfamiliar with child welfare practice, challenge problematic amendments, and develop extraordinary bipartisan support.


In Florida, Sen. Lauren Book, sponsored Senate Bill 1920 (2021) requiring the appointment of client-directed counsel for children in licensed foster care. The right to legal counsel for youth involved in the child welfare system has been a topic of significant, historical debate in Florida. Sen. Book met individually with many committee members to help them understand the critical need for children’s legal representation. With Sen. Book’s leadership, this proposal enjoyed unprecedented support in each Senate sub-committee before it reached Senate appropriations, where time ran out before a vote occurred. Though SB 1920 never reached Florida’s House of Representatives for consideration, the issue of right to counsel was examined in a House workshop on children’s legal representation where legislators explored the issue with input from child welfare experts. When asked how she garnered support to move the legislation through committees, Sen. Book explains several key steps, including:

  • “Addressing issues raised by my constituents and current and former foster youth and incorporating them into the bill;
  • Arranging for presentations and public testimony on relevant issues, such as the various roles of an attorney versus a guardian ad litem in dependency proceedings;
  • Ensuring that members understand the provisions and the benefits of the legislation;
  • Engaging in dialogue with the members to address any of their comments and concerns; and
  • Amending the legislation throughout the process to address such concerns and to produce the best version of the bill.”

Sen. Book is the sponsor of Senate Bill 948 in the 2022 legislative session. Like SB 1920 (2021), this bill proposes a guaranteed right to counsel for youth placed in licensed out-of-home care. Senator Book continues to lead the charge for children’s right to counsel in Florida.

Senator Lauren Book


The progress of the 2021 class of right to counsel bills is due in large part to the strategic efforts of these legislators who recognize the value of children’s representation and the urgency of this long overdue reform. These champions armed themselves with empirical research on improved outcomes with legal representation to show the difference child attorneys make for children and the child welfare system. They partnered with lived experience experts to educate legislative committees on what attor-neys mean to young people experiencing foster care. They shared information and resources on various models of representation and the additional Title IV-E funding opportunities to reimburse some of the costs for legal representation. Finally, they made themselves available to answer the questions of their peers, visiting them in their offices or taking their phone calls.

What does this mean for state advocates looking to ensure Counsel for Kids in their jurisdiction? Identification of a legislative champion who is ready and willing to sponsor a bill must be an important part of advocacy planning. Ongoing collaboration between right to counsel advocates, allies and the sponsoring legislator creates the ideal environment for a bill to end its journey on the governor’s desk for signature.