Do I Get a Free Attorney for Juvenile Court?

Son [S] was born in 2006, the ninth child of Mother [M]. All of S’s siblings had been involved in juvenile court proceedings, and some had been adopted. At birth, S was placed in foster care, but by 2007, he was living with M under a court-ordered maintenance program. He was removed from M’s care when she was arrested for assaulting her boyfriend with a deadly weapon. The court also ordered very limited visitation by M of S.

Between November 2011 and July 2014, S had attempted suicide and had had numerous involuntary psychiatric hospitalizations. He suffered from enuresis and encopresis (urination and bowel problems), had anger management problems, and was prescribed a regimen of psychotropic medications. By the age of 11, he was living in a group home, because his emotional and mental health never stabilized enough for long-term foster care.

M visited S while he was in the group home. She spent one hour with him every two weeks. Her visits calmed S down, and his mental and emotional health improved.

M petitioned the juvenile court to increase her visitations with S. The group home staff wanted the visitations increased as well. She also requested she be appointed an attorney to represent her at no cost to her, because she could not afford one.

M went to court and presented letters from staff at the group home and her counselor at her methadone maintenance program. The Department of Child and Family Services [DCFS] social worker was also present at the hearing. The social worker told the judge that “…M’s visits were responsible for S’s “[deterioration] to the point where [the child] could not stay in a foster home” and stated DCFS “has very strong beliefs that . . . any further . . . visitation would be detrimental to S.” The juvenile court denied M’s request for attorney, but set her request for increased visitation over for a full hearing. At the full hearing, M again requested an attorney, especially when DCFS would not allow her to have increased visitations without her going through numerous programs. At a further hearing, at DCFS’s request, reunification services were terminated, but M’s visitations were increased to two hours per week.

M appealed and the Appellate Court agreed with M: “The juvenile court is statutorily required to appoint counsel for the parent of a child who is in an out-of-home placement (or as to whom the petitioning children and family services agency is recommending an out-of-home placement) if the parent is presently financially unable to afford and cannot for that reason employ counsel ... unless the court finds that the parent . . . has made a knowing and intelligent waiver of counsel as provided in this section.” (§ 317, subd. (b).)

According to the Appellate Court, the law is very clear, and an indigent parent is entitled to legal representation at detention hearings and all proceedings following them. M’s petition was a subsequent proceeding to detention hearings. She was also indigent – poor. She was, therefore, entitled to an attorney at no expense to her.

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