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Florida Lawyer Fights for Rights of Foster Children

Although Florida is one of the top states in the number of foster children who are adopted, thousands of foster children lose their childhood by spending three or more years in care.

“We still have far too many foster children who spend years in the system instead of with their permanent families,” said Howard Talenfeld, founder of Florida’s Children First (FCF), an organization based in Coral Springs that works for children in foster care and those at risk.

Talenfeld was interviewed by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for this article on his — and Florida’s Children First’s — roles in advocating for children’s rights.

“Florida is at the bottom of the states when it comes to providing foster children an attorney in their own foster care case,” Talenfeld said. “As a result of shrinking revenues, we are now fighting threatened budgetary cuts to Florida’s independent living program, adoption subsidy appropriations and to the Guardian ad Litem Program.”

A children’s rights attorney and trial lawyer, Talenfeld successfully litigated Ward v. Kearney, a class action lawsuit to reform the foster care system in Broward, and won a landmark monetary civil rights settlement on behalf of six neglected and abused foster children. He has also worked to obtain funding for Florida’s Guardian ad Litem Program and the Broward County Children’s Services Council. He was named the Broward County Bar Association’s 2005 Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year.

You have devoted much of your career towards making life better for foster care children in Broward. How successful have you been?

In 2002, I became the founding president of FCF. Since then, I have been actively involved in the passage of landmark legislation in Florida, including the Foster Children Bill of Rights, Florida’s pilot project on representation of foster children in Dependency Court, and Florida’s breakthrough interagency education bill for foster children. The educational legislation permits foster children to remain in their schools when they come into care.

How much has FCF been able to do for foster care children in the county?

The organization is comprised of advocates from throughout Florida. We work through multi-forum advocacy before the executive branch, the Florida Legislature and the Florida Courts to protect children who are at risk in foster care and in the delinquency system in Florida. FCF has worked hard with Child Net, Broward’s lead agency, to help it improve the quality of its system of care.

Has there been an increase in the number of children in foster care over the years?

Actually, in the last three years, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of kids; this is due to the policies of Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) secretaries Bob Butterworth and George Sheldon.

What are some of the most common issues that children in foster care face?

Loss of friends, family and interruptions in their education. Trauma, trauma and more trauma.

Reports indicate that many children in the foster care system suffer from behavior problems and significant mental health issues. Does FCF address those?

We have worked hard to shorten the length of stay in foster care and improve placements and mental health services to foster children.

Does FCF receive government funding?

No, it is critical that we remain independent so that we can advocate independently. We fight every year to raise enough money to do an effective job in advocating on behalf of foster and other at risk children.

What are some of the issues that young people aging out of the foster care system face?

Like all children, they need to get their education. However, they also need to work so that they can financially survive. Unfortunately, many do not have a safety net like other children in the community.

When was it that you first decided that helping children in foster care would be a large part of your life?

I have a disabled sister. I became involved in representing the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services in the late ’80s. After I worked on several class actions law suits concerning foster care and met many foster children, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

Fighting every day to improve the system, and then seeing the system slide because of diminished revenues and some changes in leadership.

What trait do you dislike most about yourself?

My intensity. I am highly driven and don’t like to lose. I never stop until I win — even if it takes years to succeed.

What tops your list of things you must do in this lifetime?

Pass legislation that will provide attorneys for children in foster care in Florida.

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