Florida has the opportunity to become an exemplar to the nation by amending its Constitution with Proposal 40, filed by Commissioner Belinda Keiser. This proposal will give children who were removed from their parents because of abuse and neglect the right to counsel. Providing all children with attorneys in addition to their volunteer Guardians ad Litem is the national best practice and our kids deserve the best. It’s also cost effective.
Last night 24,000 children in Florida didn’t sleep in their own bed because the state removed them from their parents due to allegations of abuse or neglect. Today, 24,000 children in Florida are involved in dependency court proceedings. Every day, those courts make decisions that affect the things most important to children—how long they will be in foster care and be deprived of their liberty, where they will live and who is their caretaker, and whether they will ever go back to family and friends or be adopted. Court is also the place to protect children’s rights to education, health care, mental health care, sibling visitation, and their property rights. In those legal proceedings, the person with the most at stake is the only one who does not have the right to a lawyer.
That contrast is even starker when you consider that parents accused of abuse and neglect and children accused of criminal or delinquent acts get lawyers. But children who suffered abuse and neglect are not provided with counsel.
Not only is providing children with lawyers the right thing to do, evidence shows that it is the cost effective thing to do. Studies show that children with counsel exit foster care more quickly and are less likely to return to care than their peers. Shorter stays in foster care mean a short-term reduction in spending on foster care and group homes. It also means significant long-term savings. Getting children home or into a new family where they can be safe, stable and nurtured improves their long-term prospects for obtaining education, employment and housing. It is also the best way to prevent the intergenerational cycle of abuse.
Right now, the likelihood of a foster child getting an attorney varies tremendously by county. On one end of the spectrum are the communities where only those few children with special needs receive counsel and very few foster children have attorneys. On the other end, are the counties whose Children’s Services Councils fund several legal aid attorneys who represent a substantial number of children. In the middle are the counties that have some organized representation, either pro bono programs, at least one legal aid attorney, or in the case of Pinellas and Pasco, the Public Defender’s office which represents children in their foster case if they have delinquency charges.
Justice by geography is unfair. All of Florida’s most vulnerable children deserve the same opportunity to have their legal rights and interests protected by their own attorney in dependency cases. Contact members of the Constitution Revision Commission and urge them to adopt Proposal 40.
Howard M. Talenfeld is the president of Florida’s Children First and the founder of Talenfeld Law, the first law firm in Florida to focus exclusively on protecting the rights of physically and sexually abused, medically fragile, foster and other at-risk children. He may be reached at 754-888-5437 or firstname.lastname@example.org.