Mary Jo Pitzl
 
| Arizona Republic

Darcy Olsen sat in the back of the small courtroom, amazed at what she heard. Or more correctly, what she didn’t hear.

An experienced foster parent, Olsen was listening to the latest update on the case of the child she was fostering. 

“It’s over an hour, and it’s back and forth, back and forth, and at no point did the judge or any of the people in the courtroom ask about the child,” Olsen recalled.

Instead, the focus was on the child’s mother: Was the birth parent drug-free? Was the birth parent showing up at court dates? Was she doing what the Department of Child Safety required to get her baby back?

Olsen came equipped with a baby book and medical reports chronicling the infant’s progress.  It was for naught. No part of the formal proceeding sought to find out if the child was safe and out of danger, she said.

“There was not one question of how long has the child been in care,” said Olsen.

At the end, more as a courtesy, the judge asked Olsen if she had anything to say.

Oh, yes she did. But she’s done more than talk.

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Generation Justice seeks better legal help for AZ foster children

Darcy Olsen and Rebecca Masterson discuss GenJustice, the nonprofit they created that represents children in foster care cases.

A new nonprofit is born

Inspired by her experience as a foster parent, Olsen launched a nonprofit organization focused on helping abused and neglected children. With neighbor Rebecca Masterson, an attorney and fellow adoptive mom, she founded Generation Justice three years ago.

The duo’s focus is on the policies that shape Arizona’s child-welfare system. They have lobbied for changes at the state Legislature, filed amicus briefs in lawsuits related to child welfare and launched a legal clinic to provide advice, and sometimes legal aid, to caregivers of children in the foster system.

“We see the holes in the law,” Masterson said. “What would save this child? What would better protect this child? Then we draft ideas and we send them around and we change the laws.”

The goal: faster adoptions

In its first year, Generation Justice championed a law that gave foster parents who have cared for a child for at least nine months equal footing with family members when judges decide where to place a child. The law also requires that babies who have been exposed to drugs and whose parents have chronic substance-abuse problems be adopted within a year, even though that contradicts federal law and is routinely ignored by judges.

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In 2019, they pushed a bill that gives foster parents a say in a child’s education plan and accelerates the adoption of teens age 16 and up.

These efforts resulted in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recognizing Olsen with its Adoption Excellence Award in November. Olsen, one of 11 awardees nationwide, was cited for “extraordinary professional and personal contributions” to children in foster care.

Goals for 2021

In the coming year, Generation Justice hopes to persuade lawmakers to allow some of Arizona’s federal child-welfare funding to be spent on attorneys for children in foster care. It’s a service the nonprofit already provides to a limited extent, even without government support, and hopes to pursue further.

Last year, the Trump administration broadened the use of Title IV-E dollars to cover more legal services, something Olsen said Generation Justice helped lobby for.

“When the criminally accused have the constitutional right to an attorney, we think it’s critical the children also have the right to an attorney,” Olsen said. She clarified that she was not talking just about crimes, such as child abuse, but also about the neglect conditions that are responsible for most children being pulled into the child-welfare system.

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Attorneys who defend families contend the children already have representation. In Arizona, legal representation for children in the child-welfare system varies by county. In Maricopa County, all children are appointed a guardian ad litem, whose job is to look out for the child’s best interest by making reports to the court.

But that’s not the same as a traditional attorney who can legally advocate for his or her client, Masterson said. That puts the child’s right to representation on an unequal footing with the parents and the state.

“Not one of us out there would go into a courtroom and a case and not have an attorney by our side,” Olsen said, “Yet here we have these abused children who have suffered immeasurably going in unrepresented. It’s a major injustice and we hope to remedy that.”

To do so, Generation Justice has hired attorney Tim Keller, who is leaving his post at the Institute for Justice to work on foster-child protections. At the institute, Keller successfully defended Arizona’s tax credit program that directs funding to private school scholarships in a lawsuit that ultimately was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. He also has defended Arizona’s empowerment scholarship program, widely viewed as a voucher program. 

A mid-life switch

Both women came to child-welfare work in midlife. Olsen had served 16 years as president and CEO at the Goldwater Institute, a right-leaning think tank in Phoenix. She became a foster parent, ultimately fostering 10 children and adopting four of them. Masterson had practiced civil defense litigation. After she adopted a child with special needs, she shifted into disability law.

The kids created a bridge between the two neighbors; after all, Masterson said, it was hard to miss Olsen, who was always out on her front lawn with the kids in her care. Masterson shared photos of a youth she was helping with education plans, gushing over how joyful he looked as a little boy.

That shared delight in kids, coupled with their combined policy and legal backgrounds, laid the groundwork for Generation Justice.

Making the big fixes

The two have an easy rapport. They joked and broke into impromptu song during a recent interview. They come off as happy warriors, but their agenda hasn’t always meshed well with the foster-care establishment. 

But, Masterson said, shaping the laws that guide how child-welfare agencies operate is key.

“That’s how you fix the whole thing,” she said.

Olsen acknowledged their outsider status has been met with skepticism.

“With any of these institutions, change is hard,” she said. “We do our best to just approach people as moms, as foster advocates, as people. Not bullies, but to share what we’ve learned.”

After all, the women say, the goal of Generation Justice is the same as other child-welfare advocates: to help kids. There are lots of ways to help, from Christmas toy drives to volunteer work.

“But the gift of a lifetime is to have a family that loves you and will always be by your side,” Olsen said. “That’s what we wanted to help provide for these kids.”

About this report

An ongoing grant from the Arizona Community Foundation supports coverage of child-welfare issues in Arizona. To keep up with the latest, follow our work and subscribe to The Arizona Republic.

Reach the reporter at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl.

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