In the summer of 2015, Mary, 18, was living with her 1-year-old daughter and mother in DeSoto County, Mississippi, in suburbs just south of Memphis, Tennessee. A family friend had stolen money from them, and Mary and her mother could no longer make rent. With no available shelters in the area, they were soon homeless. Mary and her daughter bounced from place to place while the young mother sent out urgent requests for help on social media. “I would meet anyone who would help me, which was reckless, but…I would do damned near anything to help my daughter,” Mary told me.
Finally, Mary said, she felt she had no choice but to ask child welfare to take her daughter. (Mary’s name has been changed, because Mississippi law requires that information about child-welfare proceedings be kept confidential.)
Mary can’t remember how she got to the child-welfare office or much else about that day: “All I remember is my daughter in her car seat on the table, and saying, ‘Go ahead and take her. I will do whatever I’ve got to do to make sure she’s provided for, even if it’s not me.’”
After that, Mary was allowed to visit her daughter for just two hours every other week. Still, Mary told me, “I was led to believe it would be a pretty quick in-and-out process, a maximum of six months. My main fear—my massive, deep dark fear—was that my daughter would lose the realization that I was her mother.”
Instead of six months, her daughter stayed in the foster-care system for almost two years, even though Mary soon found a job and stable housing. Mary blamed her lack of legal representation for the delay. “If I would have had a lawyer from the beginning, this would have been a helluva lot shorter,” said Mary. “And if I had never gotten my lawyer, I would not have my daughter now.”
About 75 percent of poor parents in Mississippi walk into child-welfare proceedings without legal representation; it’s one of two states—Wisconsin is the other—where a majority of parents do not have a lawyer in these types of cases.
In court, parents face a lawyer for the state and a lawyer representing the interests of the child. But, with the future of their families on the line, parents are left to advocate for themselves in an adversarial system in which they have no training.
In a 1981 Supreme Court case, Lassiter v. Department of Social Services, a majority of justices ruled that a mother did not have a right to an attorney in court proceedings that would determine whether to terminate her legal standing as a parent. Since then, it has been largely left to the states to determine the rights of a parent in child-welfare cases. “It is beyond dispute that the state of parent representation remains in disarray over 35 years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Lassiter,” Vivek Sankaran, clinical professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, wrote in a recently published paper in the Journal of Legislation.