Cowlitz Superior Court Judge Stephen Warning is accustomed to presiding over child custody cases. And he’s concerned that under legislation passed this year, minors older than 12 could be served with sensitive or potentially traumatic documents.
Almost every week during his family law docket, Warning said, he presides over a case where parents are fighting over their children using documents that can get nasty. Recently passed legislation would require that children 12 and older in some of those cases receive those documents, too, and Warning would like that changed.
“It’s horribly damaging to those kids. The one safe harbor I can try and offer kids is: ‘Whatever happens in this mess, it’s not your fault. It’s not your responsibility. It’s my responsibility.’ And they should be kept out of that.”
A 12-year-old is unlikely to even understand the documents, Warning said, but if they do, they could be traumatized by reading allegations of unfit behavior about their parents.
Warning was one of several judges, lawyers and advocates for children and adults in need of legal guardians who shared their concerns and recommendations to a panel of state senators during a work session Tuesday at Longview City Hall. While no local legislators were part of the committee, state Rep. Jim Walsh, a Southwest Washington Republican, attended the event.
Legislators organized the session after Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law a Senate bill concerning legal guardians of minors and incapacitated adults. Guardians serve as advocates for clients during court and other legal proceedings. They may be lawyers, social workers or trained volunteers. The bill, titled “The Uniform Guardianship, Conservatorship, and Other Protective Arrangements Act,” makes several changes to guardianship law, including:
- Allows judges to appoint 60-day emergency guardians
- Raises the minimum age for guardians from 18 to 21 (unless they are the parent)
- Allows minors to participate or initiate in guardianship hearings, which could expose them to difficult or traumatic information
The bill takes effect Jan. 1, 2021. But Warning and others are sharing concerns that errors and gaps in the bill need to be fixed before it becomes law. Lawmakers have until November to draft a new bill for the 60-day 2020 session, which starts in January. At the end of that session, “whatever we’ve got is fixed,” Warning said.
“2021 seems like a long way away,” Warning said. “But in the context here ... it’s a fairly aggressive time frame.”
Jamie Pedersen, chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee and a sponsor of the bill, said Tuesday’s meeting was only a “first step” in hearing from constituents about how the bill should be tweaked.
“What we’re trying to do now, I would describe as sanding and polishing,” Pedersen said. “There are probably gaps that we have failed to identify ... there may be things that we haven’t gotten quite right. So we are trying to identify as many of those as possible, as quickly as possible.”
D’Adre Cunningham, an attorney with the Washington Defender Association, supported the legislation but shared concern that the bill will create a void in how previously-filed court orders are handled when the law switches over. It’s important to clarify those issues in the law rather than leave them to be defined piecemeal by judicial rulings, she said.
“There’s 194 superior court judges in this state,” Warning said. “We’re all used to thinking that we know the answer, because that’s what we’re supposed to do. The more precision you can build into (the definitions), the more uniformity you will get from judges across the state.”