Children in Oregon may be represented by an attorney in family law cases or in juvenile court cases. Sometimes the attorney is hired directly by an interested adult, but an attorney for the child may also be appointed by the court. How that appointment occurs and how the attorney represents the child varies depending on the court in question, the child’s age and mental development, and the way the individual judge in the case interprets the attorney’s role. For example, most juvenile court judges in the Portland metropolitan area appoint attorneys for children in every abuse and neglect case as a matter of course. Not so for juvenile judges in some counties outside the metro area, where children are provided with their own attorneys only in unusual circumstances. On the other hand, if a child in a family law case asks the judge for an attorney, Oregon law requires that an attorney for the child be appointed. In a family law case, if one of the parents asks the court for an attorney for the child, the court has the discretion whether or not to make such an appointment. A family law judge can also appoint an attorney for a child on the judge’s own motion.
Appointment of an attorney for a child may be appropriate in a number of different situations. In family law cases, a child’s attorney is sometimes appointed to protect the child’s rights when the child testifies as a witness or appears to be “stuck” in the middle between warring parents. This may be especially true when neither parent is represented by an attorney. Sometimes attorneys for children are appointed to try to assist the family in reaching an agreement regarding the child’s best interests, particularly when the child is too young or for some other reason is unable to express what those interests are. In some counties, attorneys for children are used to assist the court in formulating appropriate custody or parenting time arrangements when a custody or parenting time evaluation is not practical or feasible. An attorney for a teen may be appropriate if the teen has a specific point of view to advocate, but one parent is unable or unwilling to hear what the teen has to say.
Attorneys for children approach their representation in different ways, depending on the type of case and the ability of the child-client to communicate their goals and objectives. Some situations call for the attorney to proceed under the traditional attorney-client model, also called the "expressed wishes" approach. In those cases, the attorney provides independent legal representation of the child, meeting with the child, explaining to the child in ways the child can understand what is going on in the case and what the child’s options might be, representing the child's expressed wishes to the court, and giving the child a voice in the proceedings much like an attorney for an adult would. At other times the "best interests" model may be used, particularly when a child is unable to clearly let the attorney know what they want, either because the child is too young or for some other reason. Under the “best interest approach”, an attorney will still try to communicate with their child-client as much as is possible. However, the “best interests” attorney may also independently investigate, assess, and advocate for the child's best interests, both in and out of court.
In juvenile court dependency cases (which concern allegations of abuse or neglect), the child is a party to the case. The role of the attorney appointed to represent a child in that situation will depend on the child’s development and capacity for considered judgment. In family law cases, a child is usually not a party to the legal proceedings. In this situation, the role of the attorney for a child is less well defined and may differ depending on the county in which the proceeding takes place. Any attorney appointed to represent a child in family law cases or juvenile court will need to make a decision about what kind of representation is appropriate for their individual child-client.
Gevurtz Menashe attorneys have over 30 years of experience in family law and estate planning. We represent children in family law and juvenile court cases. You can reach our Portland offices at 503-227-1515 or request a consultation online.