03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Study: Most States Fail To Protect The Legal Rights Of Abused Children

A new study released yesterday, co-authored by First Star, a nonprofit advocacy group for neglected and abused children, and the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego Law School, has concluded that states across the nation are inadequately representing the legal rights of abused and neglected children in dependency hearings.

The study, entitled A Child's Right to Counsel: A National Report Card on Legal Representation for Abused and Neglected Children, has given each state a grade based on a 100 point scale that evaluated six criteria in the states' legislation. States that received the poorest grades do not have any laws on the books mandating that lawyers be appointed to represent children in court. Even in states where lawyers are appointed, legislation does not require lawyers to be trained in domestic violence issues or to treat the child in the same way they would another client. Instead lawyers are often allowed (or even encouraged) to act in what they perceive to be the child's best interest, without taking into account the child's wishes.

Based on their findings, First Star and Children's Advocacy Institute have ranked 29 out of the 50 states with failing scores of C's, D's and F's. The organizations hope their work will inspire legislation reform at all levels of government.

The issue is especially relevant in 2009. "In every economic downturn, the children are the first to suffer," explains Amy Harfeld, First Star Executive Director. In our current economic recession, child abuse rates have quickly skyrocketed 30 percent over the past year, while state and federal funding for abused children has decreased at a similar rate.

Harfeld cautions Americans to "make sure that just because children don't vote, don't have lobbyists, that they're not getting shortchanged by the government." Right now, there's no continuity in legislation around the country. Harfeld asserts all children should have equal rights, whether they live in Massachusetts (which received an outstanding score of 104) or across the border in Maine (which received a pitiful 52).

Harfeld outlined the three avenues for significant reform:

  • The American Bar Association is considering adopting a Model Act, co-written by First Star, that would require lawyers to be appointed to represent children in all dependency hearings and would give children the right to receive "client directed" representation. If successfully put into place, the ABA Model Act could put pressure on state and federal legislators to follow suit.
  • On the state level, First Star encourages advocates to continue to pressure state legislators for reform. Unless you live in Connecticut or Massachusetts, your state's legal protections of neglected and abused children could be improved.
  • The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act is slated to be reauthorized in Congress in the coming year. Without a significant outpouring of attention surrounding this issue, this opportunity will pass by and no legal reform will be included in the bill.

Those interested in helping children through the legal process are encouraged to volunteer as a Court Appointed Special Advocate.

How did your state do?

A+: Connecticut and Massachusetts

A: Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Vermont and West Virginia

B: California, Kansas, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming

C: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, Washington D.C. and Wisconsin

D: Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Washington

F: Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Maine and North Dakota

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