When the state took baby William away from his mother 2 ½ years ago, it set in motion a legal process that includes a team of professionals dedicated to the child’s well-being and giving him the best chance to succeed in life.
The baby had already been embraced by foster parents Michelle and David Trotz; within three days, a judge heard why he needed to stay in foster care rather than be returned to his biological mother, Diana Stegner.
Spokane County assigns a team to each child’s case. It includes attorneys for each parent, a state attorney, a child advocate and a judge.
Behavior related to drug and alcohol abuse – but not the substance abuse itself – is the No. 1 reason children are removed from their homes, said Lisa Lydon, an assistant state attorney general who has worked such cases for 25 years. Those behaviors might include neglect, such as not having enough food in the house or leaving young children alone, or risky behaviors such as leaving drug paraphernalia out; failing to keep weapons secured or locked up; and keeping an unsafe home, such as exposed electrical wiring.
“We see multigenerational neglect related to poverty,” Lydon said.
Parents may be represented by public defenders or private attorneys. Once in court they are offered help including parenting classes, drug treatment and mental health services.
“The system is designed to address whatever brought the parents and their children to court in the first place,” Lydon said.
After 30 days there’s another hearing to determine if a child can return home. That rarely happens.
About half of the children placed in foster care or sent to live with relatives are returned home within a year, according to state records.
Guardian ad litems and court-appointed advocates give children a voice in court. That person meets with the child and observes how they are doing with the foster family, at school and during parent visits.
Most of the children placed in foster care are younger than 10, and most of those are under age 5. There are six guardian ad litems in Spokane, each with caseloads of about 75 kids; there are nearly 200 volunteer court-appointed special advocates.
“These kids mean something,” said Pat Donahue, coordinator of the Court Appointed Special Advocate and Guardian Ad Litem program in Spokane County. “They are the most vulnerable in our society. My volunteers come in with a passion to help make things better for the kids.”
Donahue tells advocates to expect “frustration, sadness, some sense of fulfillment that they’ve done a good job and anger at how some of the processes work.”
Judges overseeing the cases appreciate having multiple voices in the courtroom, said Spokane County Superior Court Commissioner Tami Chavez. “All the players are vital to the whole because they are looking at the child’s well-being from different perspectives.”
Deciding a child’s future “is an enormous responsibility,” Commissioner Michelle Ressa said. “I have to put a lot of trust in the people in my courtroom.”
She adds, “We want to do the best we can. But none of us have a crystal ball, and we know our decision is probably only as good as the moment you make it.”
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