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Bill would ensure ‘absolutely essential’ legal counsel to parents at emergency child protection hearings

At an emergency child protective care hearing, a family court judge makes potentially lifelong and life-changing decisions, such as whether to terminate the rights of a parent and send a child into foster care.

“The heart of this bill, really, is that families should be together,” said Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn (DFL-Roseville).

She is referencing HF312 that would require counties to appoint a public defender to all financially eligible parents, guardians, and custodians who ask for one prior to the first hearing, and at all stages of child protection proceedings.

“We don’t want to be unnecessarily separating children from their parents,” she said.

Becker-Finn sponsors the proposal, she said, because not having an attorney present to advocate for the family’s perspective unnecessarily risks separating families, distressing familial bonds, and traumatizing children.

On a 12-4 vote, the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee Tuesday approved the bill, as amended, and sent it to the House Human Services Finance and Policy Committee. There is no Senate companion.

Under current statute, there is no guaranteed right to have an appointed public defender, said Becker-Finn, noting a court appoints counsel only when it “feels” it is appropriate. Minnesota is one of eight states without a public defender requirement in these proceedings.

Wanda Gierman, a child protection attorney in Stearns County, said it is “absolutely essential” that financially eligible parents get court-appointed attorneys, because she has witnessed firsthand how important it can be.

“I see the differences that it makes with respect to these parents and their ability to successfully work their case plan and be reunified with their children,” she said.

Carli Stark, public safety policy analyst at the Association of Minnesota Counties, expressed reservations about the bill, saying that requiring public defenders to represent financially eligible clients at emergency protective care hearings would strain many Minnesota counties.

She said locating public defenders, many of whom may need to travel large distances, might cause courts to delay proceedings, ultimately delaying reunification of children with their families.

The bill would appropriate $1.04 million in the 2022-23 biennium from the General Fund to distribute to counties that do not currently provide court-appointed counsel at child protection hearings.

An undetermined amount in fiscal year 2022 would also be appropriated for the Department of Human Services to develop systems to collect demographic and other data required by the bill.

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