There are times when children’s homes are unsafe and, for the safety of the children, they are separated from their parents and placed in foster care.
Often, those situations are temporary, with addiction or illness being factors in the placement of such children. We believe families belong together, so anything the state government can do to expedite the reuniting of families should be done.
A task force formed by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has taken positive steps in that direction.
Child in Need of Protection or Services (CHIPS) cases are court cases involving the general well-being of children. Previously the law had stated that the Office of the State Public Defender may represent children in CHIPS cases, but not parents.
Act 253 will allow the Office of the State Public Defender to also represent parents in CHIPS cases in Racine, Kenosha, Brown, Outagamie, and Winnebago counties. This program will continue for the next three years.
“It provides authority and funding for the state Public Defender’s office to appoint counsel for indigent parents in a five-county pilot,” stated Sam Christensen, the Racine County clerk of courts.
The pilot program requires the Office of the State Public Defender to keep track of the impact their representation has on the process.
“We look forward to working with the judges and county Human Services staff to ensure that the pilot is able to demonstrate the impact it has on these cases,” said Adrienne Moore, regional attorney manager for the Racine Region of Public Defenders Office.
Moore said the impact to Racine and Kenosha trial offices will be “significant.” Last year, Moore said, there were nearly 400 CHIPS cases filed between the two counties.
Prior to the law change, parents were required to pay for lawyers in CHIPS matters or go without representation. If they could not afford a lawyer, the county could assist some parents with the cost of appointing a lawyer, but this was not routinely done, as CHIPS cases do not require parental representation.
With the implementation of the pilot program, the Public Defender’s office will also be able to represent parents, saving the county money.
“I believe there were many parents who just went along with CHIPS actions because they did not have money to retain an attorney to advocate for them in these cases,” Moore said. “I also believe that an attorney will be able to ensure that reasonable conditions for reunification are placed on parents should CHIPS actions be found to be appropriate.”
Parents in CHIPS cases are no less deserving of legal representation. The actions taken by Speaker Vos, who created the Task Force on Foster Care, and by state Rep. Patrick Schneider, R-Schofield, who led the effort to review the state’s foster care system and draft 13 related bills, will save Racine County money.
More importantly, these changes to the process will reunite families faster.