In re Dependency of J.A.
This is a Washington state appellate court decision ruling for the first time that a trial court’s failure to provide a Washington foster youth with his own dependency attorney was a violation of his due process rights and a misapplication of the Mathews factors. The court declined to address the state constitutional issue of whether all minors are entitled to attorneys in dependency hearings.
FILE NO., COURT, AND DATE FILED
45134-4-II (WA Ct. App., Div. II, 2014)
ATTORNEYS FOR PLAINTIFFS
Columbia Legal Services
101 Yesler Way, Suite 300
Seattle, WA 98104
HISTORY AND STATUS
A dependency petition was first filed for J.A. on June 3, 2010, after J.A. was physically harmed while in his father’s custody. Prior to this dependency petition, J.A.’s father took custody of J.A. in 2009 after J.A.’s mother struggled to care for him. On March 1, 2013, during this dependency proceeding, J.A. requested an attorney.
In assessing whether J.A. was entitled to representation by an attorney, the trial Court weighed the Mathews factors (the private interest at stake, the risk of error, and the government interests at stake) and concluded that J.A. was not entitled to an attorney. The court reasoned that J.A.’s private interest in permanency and in maintaining a relationship with his mother was “not that great”, because reunification was not available at that time, J.A. was moving toward guardianship in his placement, and he felt safe at that placement. With regard to the government’s interest, the trial court found that there were significant administrative or financial burdens, given the limited resources available for the hiring of attorneys for children in Pierce County. With regard to the risk of error, the trial court found the risk of error to be low, given that J.A. was able to make his preferences known to the court in the absence of an attorney, had a team of social workers, and also had a GAL who told the court what J.A. wanted at every hearing. On May 9, 2013, the court denied J.A.’s request for an attorney.
On May 20, 2013, the trial court denied J.A.’s motion for reconsideration of the court’s ruling denying his request for an attorney. The trial court concluded that J.A.’s private interests, the risk of error, and government interests were all unchanged, despite new evidence regarding J.A.’s placement, safety and advocacy needs.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals found the trial court had erred in denying the motion for reconsideration and held that J.A. was entitled to counsel under RCW 13.34.100(6)(f). Analyzing the Mathews factors, the Court of Appeals concluded that J.A.’s private interests and the risk of error outweighed any administrative or fiscal burdens on the state posed by appointing J.A. counsel.