Law to Inform Foster Children of their Rights Could Overwhelm Public Defenders

July 31, 2017 11:04 PM

A little girl had a big message.

"I just want to help kids," said now 13-year-old McKenna Ahrenholz.

She looks different than she did when 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS first sat down to learn her story in November. She's almost a year older and will head into the 8th grade this fall. She's matured, although she never behaved like a child. She couldn't. She spent those years caring for her four siblings, hoarding food to secretly feed them when they were living with their father.

For years she was bounced between foster homes, then back home again. When she turned 10, McKenna gained the right for an attorney to start representing her desires in court proceedings. However, it took meeting her grandparents and an 11-month fight to get a lawyer appointed to speak on McKenna's behalf.


RELATED: Children at Risk: Foster Children's Rights Ignored

Since then, she has taken her quiet voice to the State Capitol where McKenna's Law unanimously passed this past legislative session.

The law requires social workers to inform foster children who are 10 and older that they have a right to an attorney and they can't waive that right without sitting down with one first.

"Then kids could actually be saved ... instead of not knowing if they could live the next day or not knowing if they could have food," McKenna said.

The law goes into effect Tuesday, but with no way of knowing how many children will want legal representation, lawmakers couldn't pinpoint a funding figure. So the measure passed without allotting any extra resources to the public defenders who will ultimately be doing the job.

"We have too many cases and too few staff," said state Public Defender William Ward. "We don't have enough lawyers." 

Should lawmakers prioritize funding for McKenna's Law next session? Let your representatives know what you think by taking action below.

Public defenders are already strapped. Many only work part time, and in greater Minnesota, defenders often travel county to county.

"We want to do the best we can for these children, but ultimately we only have so many lawyers in the state of Minnesota who are able to do this," Ward said via phone as he traveled for a case.

That goes for the Children's Law Center, as well.

Even after playing an integral part in the passing of McKenna's Law, Executive Director Lilia Panteleeva knows her nonprofit is tapped out, too.

The workload at the law center has doubled since 2010. With 600 cases open right now, Panteleeva said she only expects more children to ask for an attorney once they know their rights.

"Should we really leave children behind because we can't step up and cover those resources and meet the needs?" Panteleeva said.

As for McKenna, she won't stop until her mission is complete. Her most important message to foster children in the system?

"That they will survive through it and they will get their lawyer," she said.

The state could face a class action lawsuit if children who are eligible and want an attorney are turned away. It's against the law not to give a child 10 and older an attorney if they request one.

The Children's Law Center is hosting a roundtable discussion August 21 at 1 p.m. at the State Capitol asking for public defenders, judges and anyone else who has any involvement in this law to attend and brainstorm solutions. They are also actively looking for volunteer attorneys to offer their services to help execute the law the way it was intended. For more information on the roundtable discussion, to donate to the Children's Law Center or to volunteer as an attorney, follow this link:

Among resources sent to Minnesota counties ahead of the implementation of McKenna's Law:

Appendix A - Script and Checklist for Judge and Consulting Attorney

Appendix B - Social Services Notice to Child About Right to Lawyer

Appendix C - Child's Request for Waiver of Court Appointed Counsel


Katherine Johnson

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