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Florida Failure on National Report Highlights Need to Lend Voice to Foster Kids

If Florida were a student, it would have earned a failing grade.

The state scored an F on a national report released this week that studied all 50 states’ protections of the legal rights of abused and neglected children. Florida was one of seven states to fail (the others were Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Maine and North Dakota). A-plus grades went to Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Findings were based on the laws for legal representation for juveniles in the child welfare system. Among the criteria, as reported by the Tampa Tribune, were whether a state requires that attorneys represent abused and neglected children in court; whether those attorneys continue representing those children until their case is over, and whether those advocates receive specialized training.

The report was from First Star, a nonprofit group that litigates and advocates on behalf of children, and the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law.

From the report’s Sidebar Notes on Florida, authors noted concern that “although Florida law requires that a child have a guardian ad litem in every case, the most recent annual report of the Statewide Office of the GAL indicates that 5,100 children did not receive a GAL in 2008. Particularly troubling is the fact that those who did receive a GAL did not necessarily have one from initial detention to permanency. This report only studied whether there was a GAL assigned at some time during the case…

“This report is generous with Florida‘s grade for Criteria #3. The quoted statutory language speaks to Florida‘s – goals and we urge Florida advocates to urge adoption of amendments which make Florida Statute § 39.4085‘s goals mandatory…

“There is some interesting advocacy currently taking place in Florida. The Florida Bar Association Standing Committee on the Legal needs of Children has developed a draft bill that would amend existing state statute and address legal representation of children involved in dependency proceedings. While First Star and CAI are pleased that this draft bill will ensure that those children who are represented receive quality and zealous advocacy by requiring qualification standards, providing for multidisciplinary training, ensuring the child has the same advocate throughout the proceedings, and requiring attorneys to maintain a normal client-lawyer relationship in which they abide by a client‘s informed decisions, we encourage amendments to this draft bill which more clearly demonstrate a child‘s need for the right to counsel and which guarantee the right to counsel for every child in dependency proceedings.”

Howard Talenfeld, Chair of the Florida Bar Legal Needs of Children Committee, is hopeful the Florida Legislature will pass this legislation.

“We know that that the single-most important element to improve our child welfare system is the representation of children and giving them a voice.”

Read the entire report here. Florida begins on Page 46.

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