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Bill proposes expanded access to public defenders in child protection cases

Even casual viewers of TV cop shows know that if you are charged with a crime, but are too poor to afford an attorney, the state must provide you with a public defender at no cost.

That fundamental right was extended by the Legislature in 2021 to include requiring counties to appoint a public defender to all financially eligible, low-income parents, guardians and custodians in child protection proceedings where loss of custody is possible.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn (DFL-Roseville) would further expand the right for a free public defender to cases where a person appeals a district court’s decision on a child protection case.

“Facing the loss of your parental rights is a really big deal and we want to make sure that parents are fully supported and have the legal counsel that they need to make their case before the courts,” she said.

HF922 would establish the Statewide Office of Appellate Counsel and Training to provide free representation to eligible low-income parents in appeals court cases in juvenile protection matters.

“Whether you have access to wealth or not should not impact whether you have access to justice,” Becker-Finn said.

The House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee approved the bill, as amended, Tuesday and sent it to the House State and Local Government Finance and Policy Committee.

A centralized office, independent from the courts, would enhance the appeals process by having important, easily accessible legal resources in place to meet short court deadlines, said Brooke Beskau Warg, an attorney with Hennepin County Adult Representation Services.

She said setting up the statewide office to fund these specialized public defenders is a “critical step forward” to bringing long-overdue legal services to communities that have not been served well by the judicial system.

Data from the Department of Human Services shows that American Indian, Black, Hispanic, and mixed-race children are significantly more likely to enter foster care, she said. Parents with these races and ethnicities are also much more likely to have their parental rights terminated by the courts.

“Termination of parental rights cases are considered to be the civil equivalent of the criminal death penalty as they can result in the permanent severance of the parent and child relationship,” Beskau Warg said. It is therefore critical that parents have access to the best legal resources when they are before an appellate court wielding such considerable, permanently life-changing power.

The bill would not appropriate any state money to fund the office. Rather, it would establish a board of governors to develop procedures under which the office would operate, including the power to make future budget requests to the state.

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