Two months ago, Advocates for Children's Services, an arm of Legal Services of North Carolina, asked a Wake County district court judge for access to confidential records of children who have languished in the county's foster care system for more than three and a half years. The nonprofit lawyers' group was responding to recent reports that show children in Wake County stay in the system substantially longer than their counterparts in the state's other 99 counties. Wake's foster children average 788 days as wards, nearly twice the state average of 403 days. In an attempt to make a dent in the problem, the lawyers' petition is geared toward evaluation and expediting hundreds of cases where kids have remained in the system for more than 1,209 days, three times the state average.
It's a civil-rights issue," says attorney Lewis Pitts, director of Advocates for Children's Services. The petition points out that both federal and state laws deem foster-care stays of more than 450 days as potentially unhealthy for the children affected. "Unfortunately, our legal system still tends to regard children as property and objects rather than right-bearing persons. The outcome of our petition will reveal whether or not the children of Wake County are afforded the fundamental right of access to court in order to have a chance at securing services promised them by law."
Two weeks ago, County Attorney Michael Serrell's office responded by filing a motion to dismiss the petition on grounds that the foster records, by state law, are confidential, a move that Pitts describes as disappointing. "All we are doing is offering to provide free services to kids who have stayed in the system for far too long," he continues. "But I am confident the judge will not settle for form over substance and will look directly to the needs of these children."
A hearing on the matter is set for Nov. 30 at 9 a.m. in courtroom 4B of the Wake County courthouse. The public is encouraged to attend.