Counsel for Kids Mid-Year Update

The first half of the year has been full of activity for the Counsel for Kids campaign. The campaign supported successful policy reform, released new resources, and held various engagements to spread the word about why children in court need lawyers of their own.

Campaign Legislative Progress

The C4K campaign celebrates a victory for children in Montana! Advocates secured the right to counsel for all children involved in child protection court proceedings—taking the number of states not guaranteeing children’s counsel from 14 to 13. State Representative Jennifer Carlson (R) advanced work initiated by her colleague, former Representative Danny Tennenbaum (D), during the 2022 summer Interim Committee Meetings of the Children, Families, and Health and Human Services committee. When the committee chose not to sponsor a C4K bill during the 2023 session, she proposed her own legislation: House Bill 37 to guarantee children’s right to appointed counsel. As a National Conference of State Legislatures Child Welfare Fellow, Rep. Carlson demonstrates her commitment to improving the lives of children experiencing foster care by working to ensure their access to high-quality legal representation. She also sponsored House Bill 555 to require the state child protection agency to maximize Title IV-E federal funding for children’s legal representation and establish training requirements and practice standards for children’s attorneys. Governor Gianforte signed HB 555 into law on April 20. HB 37, which also included provisions related to warrant requirements for child removal and shortening the time frame for hearings after removals, was approved by the Senate and House but vetoed by the Governor on May 11. The Governor signed its companion bill–Senate Bill 148, that solely addresses children’s right to counsel, sponsored by State Senator Dennis Lenz (R)– into law on May 19.Rep. Carlson notes that these bills, “[…] will make a huge difference in the Montana CPS culture emphasizing the importance of children’s voices being heard, their interests being legally represented, and their constitutional rights being honored.” 

In Florida, StateSenator Jennifer Bradley (R) sponsored Senate Bill 488, which would expand the categories of special needs dependent children who are entitled to appointed counsel. The bill was referred to three Senate committees but was never set for a public hearing. While SB 488 would take only a modest step to increase access to justice, it faced powerful opposition from a competing bill: House Bill 875. HB 875, supported by the State Guardian ad Litem Office, aimed to eliminate the current guarantee of counsel for special needs children. Though HB 875 passed the House, it did not have enough support to receive a hearing in the Senate. Thus, Florida finalized neither proposal before the session adjourned, and the status quo remains. 

In Illinois, StateSenator Ann Gillespie (D), led a powerful campaign to secure children’s right to client-directed counsel. Long before the session commenced, Sen. Gillespie convened a diverse group of stakeholders, including NACC and lived experience experts, to develop a strategic plan to pass C4K legislation. Knowing that funding would be critical, Gillespie’s first strategic effort focused on ensuring federal Title IV-E funding for children’s legal representation in Illinois by sponsoring Senate Bill 1720. Governor Pritzker signed this bill on January 9. Sen. Gillespie next sponsored SB 1478 to guarantee legal counsel for all Illinois children in child protection court proceedings. She worked collaboratively with a coalition of aligned organizations and individuals to help support the proposal. Gillespie used the media as a tool to advance C4K policy, convening a press conference upon filing of the bill. She also co-authored an opinion piece with State Rep. Lakesia Collins in the Chicago Tribune to describe how system reform must include guaranteed legal counsel for children in foster care. Under her leadership, SB 1478 sailed through the Senate with unanimous approval. The bill met opposition and stalled in the House.  

In Indiana, State Senator Jon Ford (R) maintained his unwavering commitment to children and youth experiencing foster care. This year, he championed Senate Bill 485 which would require the appointment of legal counsel to a child in certain circumstances. This proposal was a renewed effort of his prior C4K proposal, Senate Bill 180 (2022). SB 485 was not scheduled for committee consideration. Sen. Ford also convened a 2022 independent interim study committee of legislators, members of the judiciary, and lived experience experts to examine the value and impact of children’s legal representation.

In New Hampshire, StateRepresentative J.R. Hoell (R) battled to maximize youth voice in child protection court proceedings. Rep. Hoell proposed HB 535, which would permit the court to appoint counsel for a child in abuse and neglect proceedings when the child’s expressed interests conflict with any recommendation of the guardian ad litem. Fortunately, during debate, the legislature examined the role of legal counsel for children in broader contexts. Ultimately, the Children and Family law committee voted to retain the bill for further consideration. Rep. Hoell’s work rang a bell for New Hampshire lawmakers that cannot be un-rung. His passionate advocacy brought needed attention to this critical issue and the deleterious impact of court proceedings that do not solicit youth input or provide legal counsel.     

New Resources

In April, NACC released the first comprehensive, state-level guide for policymakers to address the lack of legal representation for children in child protection court proceedings. Seen, Heard, and Represented: A Policymaker’s Guide to Counsel for Kids explains why kids need high-quality attorneys and provides a blueprint for legislators to develop excellent children’s legal representation systems and strengthen state policy. 

NACC also released a short video on nine ways Counsel for Kids promote race equity. The video underscores the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous children in the child welfare system relative to their representation in the general population. It describes how high-quality legal representation can help confront and challenge racism in individual cases and is a key strategy for addressing systemic racial disproportionality and disparity. Please share this resource on your social media accounts and throughout your networks. 

Spreading the Word

In March, Legal Director Allison Green presented Lawyers Make a Difference to the Idaho Child Protection Committee focusing on the value of legal representation for very young children.

On May 3, Executive Director Kim Dvorchak made a guest appearance on Cat Brooks’ Law and Disorder podcast to discuss the importance of children’s right to counsel.

On the same day, Policy Counsel Natalece Washington addressed a convening of Access to Justice Directors at the ABA/NLADA Equal Justice Conference in Dallas, TX. She shared the Policymakers Guide to Counsel for Kids and highlighted the justice gap for children and youth experiencing foster care. Washington emphasized the role Access to Justice leaders play in centering children’s legal needs among key decision-makers at the state level. 

On May 5, Ms. Washington presented the report at the State Policy Advocacy + Reform Center (SPARC) Network meeting to explain how states can advance C4K reform initiatives. 

The growth and reach of the campaign in the first half of 2023 shows the increasing appetite for state governments to guarantee that children in the nation’s foster care systems have access to attorneys of their own to ensure that their voices are heard and respected.