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Children in foster care could be offered an attorney

Children as young as 10 who have been removed from their homes have the right to an attorney to represent their wishes in the foster care system.

“I wish I could say that is happening all the time,” said Rep. Ron Kresha (R-Little Falls).

Kresha sponsors HF1702 that would require the responsible social service agency or a judge to inform children at least 10 years old of their right to an attorney. The bill would also mandate the child be provided with an attorney at public expense and provide a process for these children to waive their right to counsel.

The House Civil Law and Data Practices Policy Committee approved the bill, as amended, Thursday sending it to the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee. The companion, SF1386, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Relph (R-St. Cloud), awaits action by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

Lilia Panteleeva, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of Minnesota, said abused, neglected and abandoned children enter the foster care system feeling “scared, traumatized, and the last thing on their mind is what rights I have. Do I have rights even?”

Until three years ago, when she and her four siblings met their grandparents for the first time, that was the case for 12-year-old McKenna Ahrenholz, who shared her story with the committee.

“I was never informed before I met my grandparents that I was allowed an attorney, or that someone could have been there to listen to me,” she said. “I’ve been punched, starved and neglected, and I don’t want anyone else to go through what we had to. So I think the laws need a change. The people that make the laws like yourselves need to hear us kids who are the ones who are going through this stuff.

“I wish I could have had parents that could have been normal but they weren’t, and so for us the best thing in the whole world was to have a new home to go to, which our attorney helped us get.”

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