Chelsea Peters

Maine’s child welfare system faces growing criticism following multiple child deaths, ongoing safety concerns raised by the Child Welfare Services ombudsman, and reports of caseworker burnout.

Gov. Janet Mills recently announced an $8 million plan to address systemic deficiencies.

Lawmakers are taking action for fast and far-reaching reform to the Office of Child and Family Services. An independent review by Casey Family Programs recommended that OCFS examine national best practices in relation to current policies.

Legislators eyeing reform should heed this advice and consider a nationally-recognized best practice that can improve child safety, increase system accountability, and decrease the time children spend in foster care: legal counsel for children and youth.

Maine is one of only 14 states that does not guarantee this critical right. It is alarming that the person at the very center of a child protective case — the child — is not guaranteed the right to be represented by an attorney in our state.

For the past 12 years, I have seen firsthand the shortfalls of our system in my work as a guardian ad litem and parent’s attorney. Children are often kept out of court due to outdated notions that they should be shielded from information about their own lives. But these children have lived it — there is often very little that could be said in court that would surprise them.

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A child’s participation in court keeps them front and center in the decision-making process. When children’s voices are elevated, innovative solutions for family contact, relative placements, school consistency and expedited reunification can often be found. When children have a say in the legal processes affecting their lives, they feel empowered in an arena where they would typically lack all agency and control.

On the precipice of systemic reform, Maine should align with the majority of states implementing this research-informed best practice. Empirical studies affirm that child attorneys improve outcomes for children.

In 2008, researchers of Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago determined that children appointed legal counsel exited foster care more quickly and with more individualized case plans than children without lawyers. Just last year, a study of Washington State attorneys found that children who have legal counsel are 45% more likely to be reunified  with their biological parents, 30% less likely to change placements, and 65% less likely to experience unnecessary school moves.

These improved outcomes for children and families also result in cost savings for the state. The National Association of Counsel for Children, a leader in child welfare practice and policy, recently issued recommendations that highlight legal representation of children as essential to their meaningful engagement and protection of legal rights.

Attorneys are critical for children and youth navigating a child welfare system that is intended to assure safety and well-being, but often yields a damaging trajectory of disruption, inadequate services, and further trauma instead.

As we work to improve our child welfare system through legislative reform, let’s ensure that the children at the center of our child welfare cases are seen, heard and represented. Let’s guarantee them the right to legal counsel.

Chelsea Peters of Portland is a solo practitioner attorney in the Lewiston-Auburn area who represents parents and acts as a guardian ad litem in child protection cases. She is also the Maine state coordinator for the National Association of Counsel for Children.


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