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Lawyers for Abused Children

By: Sarah Karp
State Capital Bureau

March 06, 1995

JEFFERSON CITY _ The late Angel Heart haunts the Family Court in Jackson County.

The five-year-old child's mother brought her to court to try to get the girl protection from an abusive boyfriend. But Angel Heart refused to talk about the situation.

So the judge sent Angel Heart back to her Kansas City home with her mother. It wasn't until months later, that the truth about the abuse was revealed.

Only it was too late. Angel Heart was discovered dead after she was drowned in the bathtub of a hotel room by her mother's boyfriend.

Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Christine Sill-Rogers said Angel Heart's murder might have been prevented if the judge had assigned the child an attorney at litem, a lawyer charged with investigating the incident and providing an objective report.

"A lawyer whose job it was to stick by her would have given her a voice in court," said Sill-Rogers, who now presides in Jackson County's Family Court, the very court where Angel Heart had appeared.

In her court, Sill-Rogers said she always assigns children who are allegedly in abusive situations court-appointed legal representation.

Sill-Rogers urged legislators at a committee hearing to make this procedure law. She said she fears that without this protection, children's voices get drowned out in court.

And the committee members listened. They voted the bill out of committee and sent it to the Senate floor. It is waiting debate.

Currently, the statute allows a judge to appoint an attorney in a case involving a request for an order of protection from domestic violence.

Often, it's one of the parents seeking protection for the child, but there is no guarantee that child will be granted legal representation.

"This bill has to do with court orders of protections in domestic violence situations," said Ann Peterson Jones, director of St. Louis' CASA program, a volunteer attorney at litem service. "For example, a mother realizes she is being abused at home. In the event that there are children in the family and there are some questions about issues involving the treatment of the child, the court has the option of appointing an attorney at litem.

"In most cases, I would think this is already happening," Jones said. "The law does not say it must."

At the same time that a parent is seeking a court order of protection, the Family Services Division may be investigating the situation, said Deborah Furnell, program specialist for the Division of Family Services.

"We will tell a mother if she knows that her child is being sexually molested, that it is her job to protect the child," she said. "We will assist and encourage her to get an order of protection if the father refuses to leave."

Occasionally, the social worker investigating the case for DFS will go to court with the mother to get the order of protection, but it is not mandated.

"All legal action is totally separate from what we do," Furnell said.

Sill-Rogers said children often appear before her without anyone who objectively has looked at the situation.

"In 1994, I handled over 6,000 cases of child abuse," Sill-Rogers said. "Most of the time the children, the victims come without lawyers. And the decisions touch very profoundly on the lives of a child."

Changing the wording of the law would increase demand for attorney at litems, and the cost of this worries lawmakers.

"It seems to me the case of Angel Heart is an extreme one," said Sen. Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis County. "For most cases this might be a fairly expensive procedure. Should we just leave it to the judges discretion?"

However, Colleen Coble, executive director of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said she has been working with law schools to set up programs in which law students would volunteer to represent children and women in domestic violence cases.