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FlaBar President Diner Makes Legal Representation of Foster Children a Critical Priority

For far too long, Florida foster children haved needed their own voice and legal counsel in their own dependency case and now before other state and local agencies that make critical decisions that critically affect their lives.

Representation should be of primary concern. Currently, only 60-80% of children in the dependency system are represented by the GAL program – and very few by attorneys. Quality representation of each child in foster care, before School Boards, Agency for Persons with Disabilities, and the Agency for Healthcare Administration, to name a few agencies, may be the single most important step we can take to positively impact the lives of foster children.

This year, Jesse Diner, President-Elect of the Florida Bar, has placed among his highest priorities taking the recommendations of the 2002 Commission on the Legal Needs of Children and introducing legislation to create a Statewide Office of the Children’s Advocate.

My appointment this May to chair the Florida Bar Association’s Legal Needs of Children Committee is part of that goal. Our committee will help write legislative language and seek passage of laws and regulations critical to fulfilling the state’s mandate to serve the best interests of the children in its care.

The prime objective of the Statewide Office will be to protect the legal rights of children through adequate and competent representation. Two divisions will work together toward meeting the needs of children: the Division of the Guardian Ad Litem and the Division of Children’s Attorney.

Among many other areas addressed, it will assure independent legal representation – including for children in legal custody of the department and who face placement in licensed residential treatment centers or group care facilities; and a presumption that children 13 years of age or older are capable of communicating their expressed wishes or considered judgment. It will create a separate arm for the appointment of attorneys in four specific categories: Termination of Parental Rights, placement in Residential Treatment Centers Placements, Psychotropic Medications, and those instances when foster children who are capacitated disagree with the GAL’s recommendations.

The Office also will recruit, train and supervise attorneys, support staff, volunteers and interns who work in the Office, and ensure that its attorneys and guardians ad litem possess the skills, thoroughness, preparation and knowledge of services available to children. It will ensure that children have judicial review of adverse decisions and the opportunity to appeal, and it will identify the resources required to implement methods of collecting, reporting, and tracking reliable and consistent case data.

This legislation is just the beginning. It has taken years of work to achieve consensus on representation in matters addressing the way child welfare and advocacy are handled in Florida. With his installation today, President Diner is in a position to create great change in Florida’s child welfare care and service – giving us our best opportunity ever to achieve the goal of representation of all children in the state’s care.

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