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Family defense - Public Defense

Learn how the Department of Public Defense is working to limit the harm of the family policing system.

The Department of Public Defense (DPD) is the largest provider of parent and child representation in the state. Each year, we represent as many as 1,000 parents who could lose their children—temporarily or permanently—due to a dependency action. We also annually represent several hundred children ages 12 or older, advocating for their position in dependency cases.

DPD’s defense teams fight hard on behalf of their clients throughout the entire length of the court process. This is a complex area of law with far-reaching implications: In the course of a case, a judge decides where a child will live, with whom, where they can and cannot go, and on what basis they can see their parents, siblings, or extended family. In addition to a "dependency case," which can result in family separation, the state can also file a case to terminate parental rights—permanently severing the bond, and all legal relationship, between a parent and a child; termination is considered the family law equivalent of the death penalty in a criminal case.  Cases can go on for years, and trials often last for weeks.

Research shows that family separation is profoundly harmful to children and to their parents. In general, children who are allowed to remain in their homes fare better than similarly situated children who are removed. The trauma of family separation also harms parents who may already be struggling, causing them to be worst off and to have less hope of overcoming their challenges. Like the criminal legal system, the family regulation system is deeply racially disproportionate. Black and Native American families in Washington are more likely to be investigated, more likely to be separated from each other in a dependency case, and more likely to have their legal relationships permanently terminated. Most of our cases end with children returning to their parents, and many children who do not return home are able to remain with loved ones in their extended family, underscoring what we know: Families are the solution.

Concurrent with this frontline work, DPD advocates for state policies that will limit the harms of the family policing system—efforts informed by what our defense teams see in their day-to-day work representing families. It is a constant feedback loop: Frontline staff let our policy team know what their clients are experiencing in the courtroom, while the policy team pushes for reforms and learns from frontline staff the degree to which these reforms are making a difference.

At the core of our policy work is a recognition that a system that separates families and terminates parental rights cannot be a system of care or support. Our policy work aims to decrease the footprint of this system and to reduce the kinds of harm the system can inflict, while simultaneously building up community supports that can provide meaningful aid to those families who need it.

In all of these efforts, we work closely with other organizations that are also striving to transform the child welfare system. We’ve formed strong working alliances, partnering on legislative advocacy, appellate work, and other strategies. This partner-based advocacy has made a difference.

In the 2021 legislative session, we were a part of a coalition called Keeping Families Together that successfully pushed for a bill (E2SHB 1194) that requires the state to provide parents with a visit within 72 hours of removal and, at subsequent hearings, requires visitation to be unsupervised unless the state can show supervision is necessary for the safety of the child. Another law (E2SHB 1227), which went into effect on July 1, 2023, requires courts to consider not only the risk of harm posed by the child’s parents, but the harm a child will experience as a result of removal. In the 2022 session, the coalition pushed for SHB 1747, which took effect in June 2022, further supporting families and children by putting guardianships on par with adoption and requiring the state to demonstrate that it ruled out guardianship before terminating parental rights.

DPD also participated in several cases before the State Supreme Court including, In re Dependency of Z.J.G. & M.E.J.G. (261KB), which resulted in a unanimous ruling ensuring the Indian Child Welfare Act is applied early enough to prevent the unnecessary removal of Native children from their families. Another opinion by the State Supreme Court (In re the Termination of the Parental Rights to M.A.S.C.) overturned a lower court decision that terminated the rights of a mother who likely had an intellectual disability. Quoting from an amicus brief we wrote, the court acknowledged that parents with intellectual disabilities face stigma and discrimination that can make it hard to admit when they are struggling to understand what is being asked of them in a dependency case.

Read about how these successes have strengthened our work in the courtroom.