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ATLANTA, Feb. 8 - A federal judge here said on Tuesday that abused and neglected children have a constitutional right to legal representation, a ruling that lawyers who represent such children said was an important first step in establishing that right nationally.
The organization, Children's Rights, also sued Fulton and DeKalb Counties, which together encompass the Atlanta metropolitan area.
It accused them of failing to provide adequate legal counsel to children, saying court-appointed lawyers in Fulton County had an average caseload of more than 400 children, or four times the recommended number.
If an appellate court agrees with Judge Shoob, thereby creating case law, "it would be one of the biggest steps toward justice for children that we could make," said Marvin Ventrell, the president and chief executive of the National Association of Counsel for Children, who appeared as an expert witness for the plaintiffs.
While the Supreme Court has ruled that indigent parents must be assigned lawyers when the state seeks to terminate their parental rights, only about half of all states require that courts appoint lawyers for abused children, according to a survey conducted in 2003-4 by First Star, a nonprofit organization in Washington for abused and neglected children.
In Georgia, children in the welfare system are assigned lawyers only in cases where the state is seeking to terminate their parents' rights.
"While there is a right to counsel in delinquency cases, ironically, abused and neglected children don't have that right," Mr. Ventrell said.
Lawyers for Fulton County declined to comment on the case, and a lawyer for DeKalb County said he had referred questions to someone else in his office.
Ira Lustbader, the associate director of Children's Rights, said the organization could find no previous federal ruling that children have the right to a lawyer in child welfare cases.
Summarized by Copernic Summarizer