Montana Passes Counsel for Kids Legislation

Last week, Montana passed Senate Bill 148, which guarantees right to counsel for children experiencing the child protection system by statute. With the passage of this law, Montana becomes the 37th state to guarantee counsel for kids. The law requires the court to appoint Expressed/Stated-Interest legal counsel in all dependency cases.

The Counsel for Kids campaign celebrates this key legislation in Montana, which is part of a national trend of states considering right to counsel legislation in dependency cases. As of May 2023, 13 states still do not guarantee legal representation for children experiencing child welfare court proceedings. Children in court need lawyers of their own. We’re working to make sure they have them.

NACC Releases Policymaker’s Guide to Counsel for Kids as States Fail to Guarantee Legal Representation, Tap Federal Funds 

First comprehensive, state-level policy paper to address woeful lack of legal representation for children experiencing the child protection system. 

April 26, 2023 

Contact: Evan Molinari 


[email protected] 

DENVER, CO. – As states grapple with the unfulfilled promise of justice for all, the National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC) releases 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. 

When a parent or guardian is accused of abuse or neglect, a judge determines where the child will live and what relationship they will have with their family. The state and parents will have legal counsel, but in 14 states, the one person at the center of a child welfare case—the child—is also the one person who doesn’t get their own lawyer. Without legal representation, children could lose their family, home, school, and community and bounce through the foster care system without the court hearing their voice and preferences.  

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark case of Gideon v Wainwright, which guarantees legal representation for defendants in criminal cases. As the country works toward fully realizing the promise of Gideon, lawmakers must ensure that children and youth in foster care – who face similar restrictions on their liberty – are not left behind.  While judges make the ultimate case decisions, high-quality legal representation amplifies a youth voice so that the judge has complete information to determine the best course of action. 

The Counsel for Kids guide highlights five top priorities for policymakers and includes model legislation for legislators to adopt in their state. It also describes untapped and underutilized funding, such as federal title IV-E dollars, to provide counsel for kids and details how investing in justice for children can save taxpayer’s money.  

The momentum to guarantee counsel for kids grows nationally; 36 states ensure legal representation in these cases, and other states including Florida, Illinois, Indiana, New Hampshire, and Montana considered or still weigh counsel for kids legislation this term. 

“From babies to young adults, youth in court should be seen, heard, and represented,” said Sandy Santana, Executive Director of Children’s Rights. “If we are serious about the promise of ‘justice for all,’ we must ensure that children are represented by counsel when navigating a system with the power to sever their bonds with family, place them in a stranger‘s home or a dangerous institution, and control most aspects of their young lives.”   

“Despite being the subject of child protection proceedings, kids aren’t always guaranteed an attorney to make sure their wishes are heard and advocated for,” said John Pollock, Coordinator for the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel. “Legislative champions can correct this injustice, and this guide explains how.” 

“Court proceedings can be difficult for anyone, but especially for our children in foster care,” Indiana State Sen. Jon Ford (R-Terre Haute) said.  “For several years, I have worked on legislation that would provide attorneys for children in Indiana’s foster care system, and this will remain a priority of mine so young Hoosiers can navigate the legal system and have their voices heard.” 

“As long as court is a forum where children’s futures are decided, justice requires that children have access to highly skilled lawyers who will utilize their talents and power to safeguard the rights of every child in foster care, including their right to love, family, and opportunity,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, Executive Director of Youth Law Center

“Courts work best when everyone involved in a case has legal representation,” said Natalece Washington, Policy Counsel, National Association of Counsel for Children. “Children are experts in their own lives, and judges can only hear their voice if they have an attorney.” 

PDF version of this press release.


Founded in 1977, the National Association of Counsel for Children is a non-profit professional membership and advocacy organization dedicated to advancing justice for children, youth, and families. NACC provides programs, training, certification, and resources that improve the quality of legal representation for children, parents, and agencies; supports a community of dedicated professionals and helps attract and retain diverse talent in the children’s legal advocacy profession; and advocates for policies that advance children’s rights, including the right to counsel. 

Sarah Bryer Consulting Evaluates Counsel for Kids Campaign

Executive Summary of Initial Outcome Evaluation of NACC’s Counsel for Kids Campaign by Sarah Bryer Consulting

In the spring of 2021, the National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC) launched a state-based “Counsel for Kids Campaign” (Campaign) to ensure the right to counsel for every child in the child welfare system. The Campaign incorporated twin goals of advancing reform and building out local advocacy capacity. NACC provided tools, resources, and direct technical assistance (TA) to statebased partners seeking to initiate, expand or improve upon children’s legal representation.

Halfway into an initial three-year grant, NACC commissioned a neutral, third-party evaluator to conduct an evaluation of the Campaign’s progress and understand its impact. At that point, NACC had worked with seven states in different stages of policy change. The evaluation found that the Campaign provided relevant TA that met or exceeded its initial goals, and that with additional resources it could achieve even greater impact establishing and expanding access to counsel for kids.

The evaluator collected qualitative data to surface patterns and uplift nuances that might be clouded by a quantitative approach. The evaluator conducted a full document review and semi-structured, qualitative interviews with NACC national staff and with the lead advocate in each of the seven states (AK, CO, FL, IN, ID, SC, WA).

Support for State Campaigns
State-based advocates appreciated and utilized NACC’s substantive assistance. The evaluation revealed several themes related to this support.

On-Point Assistance: NACC staff provide a variety of assistance including campaign strategy planning, communications support, research, talking points, help identifying allies, coalition building,and answering questions from legislators. NACC staff serve as a sounding board, give feedback on materials, provide the muscle for drafting more extensive documents, testimony, and letters, and present at committees, trainings and working groups.

“NACC was able to respond to legislators quickly … They had a high level of
specificity and accuracy.”

A Culture of Humility: The Campaign incorporates a “culture of humility” to its work by treading carefully in state waters. Campaign staff are both respectful of and sensitive to the local advocates’ desires and the political contexts in which they operated. NACC typically strategizes with local partners about how best to wield their influence and frequently conducted work out of the public eye to avoid a perception of meddling by a national organization.

“People (here) really don’t like being told what to do. (NACC) was very
appropriate in not stepping on toes.”

“NACC is persuasive with some but not all attorney groups, so we strategized about the best place for NACC to be the most effective.”

National, Independent Expertise: NACC successfully walk the tightrope of knowing when to step back from the spotlight while also capitalizing on the benefit it brings as a national expert that wasn’t entangled in local politics.

“Having NACC at the table brought the conversation up out of the personal and back into the realm of best practice.”

“NACC gave the work national credibility. [We] could talk about this being a national movement and paint a bigger picture.”

Enhancing Local Advocacy Capacity
NACC’s secondary goal for their campaign is to build out local advocacy acumen. By providing state advocates with support around strategic planning, coalition development, cross-state connections and communications infrastructure, the Campaign both advances current efforts while deepening advocacy know-how. Five states that were either initiating their campaigns or were at an inflection point benefited from capacity building assistance. Most of the states that received capacity building TA indicated that the assistance was crucial.

“When NACC came in, it became a campaign. Gave it a backbone.”

“Because of NACC, things happened more quickly than they otherwise would have.”

NACC staff help formalize the coalition structure with principles and guidelines so that members of the public could see how it operated, allowing for healthy membership expansion.

“We developed a broader coalition, so it wasn’t just lawyers – but included people with lived experience: parents, foster parents of youth, young adults who were youth in the system. In the past we had just turned to the usual suspects. Our coalition has now doubled in size.”

NACC Campaign Staff would have liked the state coalitions to include even greater racial and ethnic diversity. This remains challenging and requires further investigation and action.

Communications Infrastructure: The Campaign helps to build out some states’ infrastructure for communications through website improvements and increased social media presence, but states have limited capacity to maintain these channels independently of NACC staff.

Creating Peer Connections: Several states expressed that NACC’s facilitation of cross-state connections improved their work and were eager for more peer-to-peer opportunities. Similarly, five states elevated NACC’s national conference as a critical place to learn about the campaign, gain new strategies and hold discussions with key state stakeholders on neutral ground.

Campaign Growth Areas
States identified multiple ways that the campaign could have even greater impact.

Advocacy Support: State advocates almost universally felt stretched thin. Suggestions for
increased advocacy support included:

  • Funding for a full-time staff person in the state, having the Campaign take over their website and social media channels, and funding a lobbyist in the state;
  • Resources for communications strategy such as ad purchases and help writing and placing editorials and news stories;
  • Discretionary funds to pay for campaign activities such as food for meetings or stipends for youth focus groups.

Evaluation and Research: Multiple states mentioned the need for assistance with data collection and evaluation during both legislative and implementation stages and national research such as studies that compare the best interest attorney model to a client-directed attorney model.

Increased Capacity for NACC to Influence State Actors: Several states were interested in NACC building out its capacity to influence state actors. Suggestions for NACC included:

Developing connections with the departments of children’s services in every state;

  • Developing connections with the departments of children’s services in every state;
  • Establishing NACC’s independent relationships with state legislators;
  • Bringing the heads of administrative bodies from other states to present to legislators; and
  • Expanding national connections to CASA to help shift thinking on the local level.

Peer-To-Peer Connections: States were interested in more peer-to-peer connections both for advocates and state actors. Two ideas for these connections included:

  • Building out cohorts of advocates at different stages of their campaigns; and
  • Connecting state actors (administrators, judges, legislators etc.) to similarly positioned actors in other states, who could serve as trusted sources of information.

Litigation: While litigation was not part of NACC’s strategy, several states indicated a desire for connections to law firms and/or help building out a litigation strategy.

Implementation: Finally, states thought that after a change in policy, it would be helpful for the Campaign to provide on-going support for trainings, standards setting, data collection and evaluation.

The Counsel for Kids Campaign provides crucial and unduplicated support to state-based advocates.Campaign staff navigated the needs of local coalitions and the varied political waters in which they operated. State advocates universally appreciated the support from the National Campaign and could articulate, with specificity, how the Campaign’s involvement advanced their advocacy skills and goals. Recommendations for improvements centered on requests for increased services and supports rather than a change in the current practice of TA provision.

For more information about the Counsel for Kids evaluation and Counsel for Kids Campaign please contact NACC Executive Director Kim Dvorchak at [email protected]. Contact Sarah Bryer Consulting on LinkedIn or at [email protected]

PDF version of this summary.

Pending Legislation Across the Country to Advance Children’s Right to  Counsel

Momentum is building around the country to ensure counsel for kids experiencing the child protection system.

Florida Senate Bill 488 would expand the categories of dependent children who are 
entitled to counsel and require the state agency to work directly with the Justice Administrative Commission to obtain Title IV-E funds for children’s legal representation. The bill was referred to Senate Judiciary, Appropriations Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice, and Fiscal Policy on February 9. 

Illinois Senate Bill 1478 would grant children placed in foster care the right to a court-appointed, client-directed attorney in any abuse or neglect proceeding. Senator Ann Gillespie convened a press conference in Springfield, Illinois on February 8 and NACC’s National Law School Student Organizer Leyda Garcia-Greenawalt shared her support for children’s right to counsel. The bill was assigned to the Judiciary Committee on February 14. 

Indiana House Bill 1172 originally would guarantee legal counsel for a small 
subset of children involved in child in need of services or termination of parental 
rights cases. NACC offered written comments in support of the bill. Unfortunately, on 
February 16, the House Judiciary Committee removed all language extending youth’s right to counsel. 

Kansas House Bill 2381 would require the court to appoint an attorney to represent a child who is the subject of a child in need of care proceeding and permit the optional appointment of a guardian ad litem. This bill would change Kansas’ best interest attorney model to a client directed model. The House Committee on Judiciary held a public hearing on February 16. NACC submitted written comments in support of the bill. 

Montana House Bill 37 would require the appointment of legal counsel to any child subject to abuse and neglect court proceedings notwithstanding the appointment of a guardian ad litem. The House Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on January 10. NACC Policy Counsel Natalece Washington offered written and public comments (@9:55) in support of counsel for kids. The committee voted 18-1 to approve the bill for consideration by the whole House. A companion bill, Montana Senate Bill 148, would also guarantee legal counsel for children in dependency cases.  

Mississippi House Bill 1149 would ensure children are appointed client-directed legal counsel at all stages of a proceeding and ensure the child is deemed a party to the proceeding. The bill passed the House on February 2 was transmitted to the Senate and referred to Senate Judiciary A. 

Missouri House Bill 1170 would guarantee the appointment of client-directed legal 
counsel for children at all stages of a child abuse and neglect or termination of 
parental rights proceeding and make discretionary the appointment of a guardian ad 

New Hampshire House Bill 535 would permit the court to appoint counsel for a child in abuse and neglect proceedings where the child’s expressed interests conflict with any recommendation of the guardian ad litem. The House Children and Family Law committee held a public hearing on the bill on January 24. NACC submitted written comments in support of the bill. The bill was considered in executive session on February 21. 

Oklahoma SB 907 (Companion Bill HB 1017) would establish the Family Representation and Advocacy Program, an entity that would be responsible for ensuring parents, legal guardians, and Indian custodians, and children are appointed counsel who have the training, support, and access to resources. The bill passed the Judiciary committee and was referred to Appropriations on February 14. 

Connecticut Senate Bill 1008 would continue the appointment of legal representation for youth involved in extended foster care court proceedings. The Joint Committee on Children heard the bill on February 16. NACC submitted written comments

Georgia House Bill 460 would guarantee the right to counsel to youth receiving extended foster care services. 

CBS Sunday Morning Underscores Systemic Problems; Counsel for Kids is Part of the Solution

Earlier this week, CBS Sunday Morning news shared the experiences of Vanessa Peoples, Samantha Mungai, and their respective families, with the child protection system. 

The report underscored racial and economic injustice in the system and the impossible choices families often face. It also grappled with the fact that family separation often harms children. 

The majority of child protective services investigations are for neglect, not abuse. Professor Dorothy Roberts noted: “Neglect is usually confused with poverty. Neglect is defined by most states as parents failing to provide the resources children need… because parents can’t afford them.”

And black families are twice as likely as white families to be impacted by the system. 

The system is “responding to harm and inflicting an intervention on those children in a way that causes further harm,” according to Alan Detloff. 

Children have legal rights: the right to their families, the right to sibling connections, the right to be heard, the right to be safe, the right to education, and more.  

But a legal right, without the ability to enforce that right, is often useless. When the child protection system makes the wrong decision, or threatens a child’s rights, it often requires legal representation to address it. As Vanessa People’s family’s experience showed, the only recourse to address systemic flaws came through legal representation. 

We’ve heard the same from other individuals with lived experience in foster care.

However, 14 states still don’t guarantee legal representation for children experiencing the child protection system. The one person at the center of a case is the one person who doesn’t get their own attorney.

That means courts make vital decisions about a child’s life and future—where they will live, where they will go to school, what connection they will have with family—without hearing their voice. 

Counsel for kids also reduce unnecessary school moves, help kids exit the foster care system quicker, and promote racial equity by challenging disparate treatment and ensuring fair access to court and services, among other benefits.  

We need #Counsel4Kids to protect children’s rights, ensure their voices are heard, and help address systemic issues.