Foster Children In Nevada Face Judicial System Alone, Underrepresented
Elliot Brittan was 17 when he entered the foster care system in Nevada.
He had grown up in the care of his grandparents, and after their deaths, he was forced into a system he knew nothing about.
The court's first option was to find Brittan's biological father - a man Elliot never knew or even met.
Brittan was assigned an attorney with the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.
“I went to court and I really didn’t have to say anything. Greg [his attorney] already knew what my thoughts were,” Brittan said.
Brittan had no connection to the man claiming to be his father and he didn't want to be placed with him. His attorney made that argument to the court.
The attorney got him through that hearing plus a year of tough court appearances and decisions - even while Brittan was himself struggling with addiction.
He calls him more of a mentor than an attorney.
There are roughly 3,400 children in foster care in Clark County. Of those, about 3,000 are represented by a Children's Attorney Project lawyer with the Legal Aid Center.
That means hundreds of children will go through a court system alone and without representation. The Legal Aid Center is trying to close that gap with an outreach effort to encourage more attorneys to represent children who are often vulnerable and alone.
Barbara Buckley is the executive director of the Legal Aid Center. She told KNPR's State of Nevada they want to have the attorneys in place by the end of the year with the goal that "that no kid goes without an attorney in the foster care system.”
She said without an attorney children often aren't listened to by the judge.
Buckley gave an example of one client who told the judge she wanted to be placed with her grandmother and not in foster care but it wasn't until an attorney was assigned to her that a judge finally placed her where she felt loved and safe.
“The child welfare system is not a good one for kids,” Buckley said.
Sometimes children get a good foster home and sometimes they don't, she said. And sometimes they have a good caseworker and sometimes they don't.
She said siblings are placed in different homes. Kids sometimes aren't allowed to go to the school of their choice.
“Different issues come up in different cases,” she said.
But attorneys can be the voice kids need in court and because they meet with them where they are living they get to know them and their situation.
“In some cases, many of them, when we’re in court, we know that child better than anyone because we’ve been on the case the longest,” she said.
Buckley believes many of problems could be resolved from the beginning if the placement system and the overall child welfare system were fixed.
She is hopeful a new director will help put in place many of the reforms recommended by a blue ribbon commission a few years ago.
But even then, Buckley said the attorneys for the children will fight for their clients whether they want to be reunited with family, placed for adoption or age out of the system and need help adjusting.
Barbara Buckley, executive director, Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada; Elliot Brittan, UNLV student