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Proposal would require state to appoint attorneys for foster children in state child welfare system

Sen. Jon Ford authored Senate Bill 180
Posted at 6:40 PM, Jan 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-10 18:51:48-05

INDIANAPOLIS — A proposal is moving forward that would require the state to appoint an attorney for foster children who are going through the child welfare system.

On Monday, the Senate Family and Children Services committee approved Senate Bill 180 by a 9-0 vote, but lawmakers agreed they need to further study how to fund the program.

Currently, foster families in Indiana are not legally represented unless they hire their own attorney.

Senate Bill 180, authored by Sen, Jon Ford, would create an office of attorneys for foster children, but would not replace Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) or Guardian Ad Litems.

Kristi Cundiff, a former foster parent and current advocate for foster and adoptive families, said CASAs can’t file legal paperwork, which is why an appointed attorney is necessary.

“What we’re trying to do is get attorneys appointed to every child in the state of Indiana that is involved in the foster care system so that attorney can represent them,” said Cundiff. “We all have to work together to make this happen. We are in a sense of urgency timeline. We really are.”

Fifty children in Indiana died from abuse or neglect in 2020, according to a report released Thursday by the Indiana Department of Child Services.

Under the proposal, a foster child’s attorney could file legal motions including a petition to terminate parental rights.

“We have cases that have lingered on for six years,” said Cundiff. “A child coming into foster is always meant to be temporary; it’s not supposed to be a permanent way of life. It’s supposed to be a temporary fix to see if the parents can get back on track and get their kids back or not.”

The Senate committee heard more than an hour of testimony, nearly all in support of the legislation, from foster parents and child advocates.

“We need specially trained attorneys,” testified JauNae Hanger, president of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana. “It will take time to pull together such reform in our system, but is it an essential step we really need to take. It will not only ensure children have a voice in their care, but will also improve the system as a whole."

The top concern expressed by public defenders and lawmakers is the cost associated with the plan.

The bill will significantly increase the number of claims for reimbursement from the Public Defense Fund and is estimated to increase state expenditures from the Public Defense Fund by $11.3 million annually, beginning in FY 2023, according to the bill’s fiscal analysis.

“The bill’s requirements will significantly increase county costs and caseloads for indigent counsel services,” read the fiscal analysis. “It is estimated to increase local expenditures by approximately $38.4 M to $49.7 M. ”

The bill is expected to significantly increase caseloads for public defenders and counties would likely have to hire additional attorneys to remain adequately staffed.

Sen. Jon Ford said federal funding, specifically Title 4E, could be used to help pay for the attorneys.

Lawmakers will now look at how many foster children may need attorneys and how the state could pay for the plan.

WRTV contacted the Indiana Department of Child Services, but a spokesperson declined to comment on the legislation and no one from DCS testified on the bill Monday.