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New Law Says Counsel May Be Provided To Parents In Youth Court
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Some low-income parents in Mississippi at risk of losing their children in youth court may now be able to get a lawyer provided by the state. That's due to a recent Mississippi Supreme Court decision and a new law passed this week by legislators. As part of our ongoing "Crisis Point" child welfare series, MPB’s Evelina Burnett takes a closer look at why giving parents access to legal representation matters.

Horrifying cases of child abuse are what most people think of when they think of youth court -- it's what makes the headlines -- but what's seen in the day to day is very different. 

"The bulk of the cases, the majority of cases, are going to be situations where mom and dad may be evicted. Mom and dad don’t have food in the house. The child has scabies and lice and has had lice four or five times in the past three months, and the school has reported that as a health and safety concern," says attorney Carlyn Hicks, who is the parent representative in Rankin County's youth court.  

Hicks's job is part of a pilot project that started in youth courts there and in Adams, Forrest and Harrison counties in 2012. According to an analysis of the project published last year, nearly 80 percent of the cases in Rankin County stemmed from allegations of neglect. 

Hicks says these are often rooted in poverty.

"When you think about that, it's not hard to get up and suit up and fight for that parent, because you recognize and realize, it's not indicative of their parenting ability. This is not indicative of their love for their child. But we have to look at best efforts of the parent to provide a safe and nurturing environment for their child -- within the means that they have to do that."

Many parents in youth court are unlikely to be able to afford a lawyer, and because this is a civil court, until now, counsel didn't have to be provided. 

Hicks says parents also often have to appear in court with very little notice. She describes what appearing in youth court is like for many parents: 

"When you walk in the courtroom, there's a social worker. There may be law enforcement. There's a prosecutor. There's an attorney for the child, or a guardian ad litem for the child, or there may be both," she says. "And you're the only one in there who's not represented at that point. You're the only one in there who doesn't know what your legal rights are at this point. So you're there, sinking or swimming, by yourself."

On top of this, youth court is a unique system with its own set of rules. Tom Broome is a youth court judge in Rankin County and also chairman of the council of youth court judges in Mississippi. 

"Youth court is an extremely complicated system because it encompasses both federal law and state law, as well as administrative regulations and policies, as well as local court customs and practices," he says. 

And on top of that, the parents in youth court often have underlying problems, such as substance abuse. Broome says having an attorney for the parents from the beginning helps them stay involved in the process. 

"Particularly with parents who are having difficulties already, the complexity of having to navigate the court and not knowing where to turn, frustrates them and causes them to retreat and basically turn their children over, in some instances, to the state because they just don't know how to get them back," he says. 

The preliminary study of Rankin County’s program found that cases in which the representative was involved were resolved quicker than cases without an attorney. Parents also received significantly more services. 

Leslie Lang was the parent advocate in Harrison County for three years. 

“I wholeheartedly believe if they have an attorney it's a better outcome," she says. "It may not stop a termination. But at least that parent feels like they had a say in the process, and they understood what happened, and they don’t feel like they got robbed of their children.”

Lang says parents also have a right to see the evidence against them – though the rules of youth court mean that they can’t take any evidence out of the courtroom, one of the quirks that can make youth court a challenge. 

Lang says parents can also have some say in where their child is placed. 

"We have to incorporate them in making those decisions," she says. "We can't automatically assume that one lapse in judgement, one poor decision, that brought them into the court means they can no longer make any decisions on where their children go, how often they see them, and how they're being taken care of."

Jennifer Sekul Harris is the parent representative in Hancock County, which was added to the pilot project last year. 

"Youth court is a very scary place for people who have no legal background," she says. "They're very emotional about their children being  removed. And so hopefully with my position and with the others in the various counties, it's helping the families be calm and work diligently toward getting their children back into their care." 

One outstanding question is who will pay for the legal representation. Some believe it actually saves money overall, since it means kids spend less time in the foster care system. Harrison County Youth Court Judge Margaret Alfonso takes an even more long-term view:

“It is very traumatic to children to be removed," she says. "That can result in problems for that child later on in life. So you have to look at the big picture of what parent representation provides. If it results in less trauma to that family, then it results in taxpayer dollar savings.”

The pilot program is largely funded by grants. Supporters hope that it might expand to other counties. 

For earlier stories in our series "Crisis Point," and other stories about child welfare in Mississippi, please click here