A new set of Alaska court rules will give youths in foster care more opportunities to have a lawyer represent what they want to happen with their cases — and their lives.
Mateo Jaime could have used a lawyer back when he was 17 and in foster care. He says he was sent to a locked psychiatric hospital in Anchorage for no reason other than the Office of Children’s Services couldn’t find another placement for him.
“I never got any input into why I was there, or how I could leave,” said Jaime, now a 19-year-old college student. “I was supposed to stay for two weeks. I stayed two months.”
Thinking back, “I wish I had (a lawyer) back then,” he said. “I was really struggling.”
Earlier this month, the Alaska Supreme Court passed Order No. 1979, which amends a slew of court rules related to the ability of youths in foster care to attend hearings and have court-appointed lawyers argue for their own stated wishes.
Among the biggest changes:
• Youths must be appointed an attorney to represent their wishes when they refuse residential treatment or psychotropic medication; if they are pregnant or parenting; if they want to protect their therapy records as confidential or under other circumstances; or if they’ve been put on runaway status from a foster home placement.
• Youths will have the right to be informed when court hearings are happening, to be present at them and to participate. “The presumption of this rule is that children have the right to attend (Child In Need of Aid) proceedings. The court should not routinely exclude children from CINA proceedings,” the amended rule reads.
The changes came from years of work on the part of Alaska’s Court Improvement Program, a federally mandated committee that includes judges, attorneys, social workers, tribal representatives and others working to improve child welfare courts in Alaska.
The shift fits into a national effort to give children and teenagers in foster care more input into decisions about their lives, said Amanda Metivier, director of the Child Welfare Academy at the University of Alaska Anchorage, which trains new OCS workers. She is also the co-founder and a board member of Facing Foster Care in Alaska and a former foster youth herself.
The Alaska Supreme Court ordered the new rules to go into effect Oct. 17.
It represents a profound shift, said Metivier. Youths in the foster care system are parties to a legal case and have rights. But the system has primarily seen them as children to be protected, she said.
The young people whom Metivier works with through Facing Foster Care in Alaska have for years demanded more say in decisions about their lives. At the top of the list: being able to refuse residential treatment and medication, she said.
“Youth need to be participating in their legal case, have an attorney and be heard around these issues,” Metivier said.
Children in foster care already have a guardian ad litem, a neutral party appointed by the court to advocate for the child’s best interest. But sometimes what the guardian ad litem believes is in the child’s best interest conflicts with what the child says they want to happen, Metivier said. That’s where an appointed attorney to advocate for the child’s expressed interest would come in.
Alaska judges have had the power to appoint an attorney to represent a child in foster care “in the interest of justice,” but it was seldom clear when that would be, said Rebecca Koford, a spokesperson for the Alaska Court System.
The changes “add some guidance and consistency,” Koford said.
Jesse Herrera, 19, could have used that help on her long journey through the foster care system.
She was first placed into foster care at age 4, in California. She cycled through foster and group homes around the state before moving to Alaska to be adopted by a distant relative. When that didn’t work out, she found herself in Anchorage. For a time she was homeless.
During that time, Herrera, who is transgender, was also transitioning. It wasn’t always easy to find support in court for what she wanted.
“I became an advocate for myself,” she said. But a lawyer would have helped.
Now, Herrera’s life has become more stable. She just moved into her first apartment and is enjoying decorating it. She’s completing high school online and will graduate from Eagle River High School next month.
She hopes to go to college and study law.