LSU Football, the U.S. Congress, and the American Child’s Right to Counsel

Congress in session

Photo by NASA HQ Photo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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This past Monday afternoon in Washington, D.C. was an anomaly on two counts: the weather was comfortably dry and the U.S. Congress took a moment to consider justice for children. Miracles do happen.

Amy Harfeld of Children’s Advocacy Institute and Rricha Mathur of First Focus partnered with NACC and the ABA Center on Children and the Law to produce a Congressional Briefing on Children’s Right to Counsel, sponsored by the ever-laudable U.S. Representative Karen Bass of California. A packed Gold Room in the Rayburn House Office Building included dozens of congressional staffers and child advocates. What does it mean to be an American child? Do they have rights? What distinguishes our system of justice for kids, parents, and families from, say, North Korea or the Russian Federation? Is it that we are a nation of laws, and children as individuals will be represented by legal counsel when the immense power of the state bears down upon them?

Maybe, maybe not, was the short-form takeaway from an unassailably expert panel of advocates. Clark Peters of the University of Missouri extolled the benefits of representation in dependency court, which is available to only some of the children and youth who have been removed from their homes and families. Kim Dvorchak of the National Juvenile Defender Center explained that the more than one million kids facing juvenile delinquency charges each year do indeed have a constitutional right to legal defense (thanks, Justice Fortas), but most often do not receive the due process our nation’s highest court has mandated. Jennifer Podkul of Kids In Need of Defense (KIND) painted a sobering picture of immigration proceedings, with kids who are represented being five times more likely to win their case (though less than half receive such defense). Jen Renne of the ABA, consistently this field’s moral conscience, passionately defended the human right to have one’s voice heard. And Derrick Riggins, himself a former youth in care, topped us all with his first person account of what happens when that human right is ignored. Your humble scribe opened and moderated, and this link will take you to a video recording of the briefing.

CAPTA reauthorization is just one opportunity, on the dependency side, to address this injustice. Here’s the link to related resources, and know that the Amy Harfelds and Kim Dvorchaks and Jennifer Podkuls of the world want to hear from you: find them through the links to Children’s Advocacy Institute, National Juvenile Defender Center, and KIND.

If you’re inclined to think of this as just a theoretical consideration not tied directly to real-world outcomes of real kids, please check out this story. If you’re an American kid in court, your fate may have less to do with law and justice and more to do with whether the judge’s favorite football team won or lost the other day. If you’re a kid in Louisiana, dodge that court hearing if the LSU Tigers lost in football that week. As humorist Dave Barry is fond of saying, we are not making this up.

Lawyers for kids are defending the American way, and paying attorneys to defend statutory and even constitutional rights must be part of the cost of child welfare, juvenile justice, and immigration systems. We don’t let government agents run roughshod through family life, do we? We don’t let the state walk out the door with a family member without due process, right?

The sun was shining brightly in D.C. last Monday. The future will be dark for American kids, though, unless we – the grown-ups in the room – demand justice on their behalf.


Note: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NACC.

About Kendall Marlowe

Kendall is the Executive Director of the National Association of Counsel for Children, the national advocacy organization of attorneys and other professionals representing children and families in child welfare, juvenile justice and custody cases. Kendall served as Chief of the Bureau of Operations and as Deputy Director for the Department of Children and Family Services in Illinois, where he was also spokesperson for the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Governor’s Long Term Care Reform Task Force. Kendall grew up in a family that welcomed six adolescent foster youth, has been a foster and adoptive parent himself, and worked as a social worker with at-risk, homeless and foster youth on Chicago’s south side. He holds a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, where he received the Wilma Walker Honor Award; and a J.D. and Certificate in Child and Family Law from the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, where he was an Honorary Child Law Fellow.

1 Comment
  1. As a Louisiana native, public defender, and LSU graduate (with deep ambivalence about football) I have to think that poor Louisiana is just illustrative of a phenomenon that probably exists wherever people are a little sports-crazy. I’m looking in your direction, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

    Not that this is OK on any level, but it raises my hackles a little bit that this story is sometimes treated a bit cavalierly, and like Louisiana’s shame here is something for other areas that might have their own similar issues to point at and laugh.

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