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Foster Child Attorney: Proposed Law to Provide Attorneys for Children with Disabilities Passes Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee

By a unanimous vote, SB 972, sponsored by Senator Bill Galvano (Bradenton), was approved by Florida’s Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee today with overwhelming support. The bipartisan, bicameral initiative would provide attorneys to children with disabilities in foster care, many of whom linger in foster care longer than their peers, for an average of up to five years, and sometimes longer. Representative Erik Fresen (Miami) is the sponsor of the House companion bill HB 561, which also passed unanimously during its first committee meeting.

“We are grateful to the hundreds of volunteers across the state who give their time to help our children through programs like GAL and other local legal aides, but we have a moral obligation to make sure all of our medically fragile children and their families get the care they need,” said Sen. Galvano.

Under SB 972, the attorney would provide necessary legal representation in administrative and court hearings to help children obtain the services and support they need to be safe and well and to find permanent families. Recognizing the need for skilled representation, these lawyers would represent disabled children in applications for benefits and denial of benefits from the state and federal agencies, such as the Florida Agency for Persons with Disabilities, the Agency for Health Care Administration or the Social Security Administration.

Consider the case of Tamiyah Audain, a 12-year-old girl from Broward County who was non-verbal, developmentally delayed and could not care for herself. Tamiyah was in state care after her mother passed away and her father declined to care for her. The cousin she was sent to live with agreed to care for Tamiyah only temporarily while arrangements were made to send her to a relative out of state. When a few weeks became months and no developmental services were provided, the cousin became overwhelmed with Tamiyah’s needs. Tamiyah eventually died from starvation and neglect – both of which could have been prevented if she had an attorney to obtain Medicaid waiver benefits and promote timely transfer to the medically trained aunt waiting to care for her out of state. The benefits were never requested, the transfer efforts stalled.

Among other changes, SB 972 would provide attorneys for dependent children who have been prescribed a psychotropic medication and refuse to take the medicine, have a suspected diagnosis of developmental disability (as defined in s. 393.063), are being placed or considered for placement in a residential treatment center, or who have been a victim of sexual abuse or human trafficking and who are suspected to be in need of mental health treatment.

“Children are in foster care because they have been abused or neglected. They survive because of their strength and resilience. We can promote those characteristics by providing them with their own attorney when they disagree with medication recommendations and face locked residential treatment. Key decisions about children’s lives are made by judges in court proceedings – finally, as parties, they will have their own attorney,” said Christina Spudeas, Executive Director of Florida’s Children First, a statewide children’s advocacy group.

Added Rep. Fresen, “In order to protect the well-being and welfare of one of our most vulnerable populations in the State of Florida, our disabled dependent children, we must provide them with additional tools. By providing these children legal representation, we are helping to ensure that all of the benefits afforded to them are delivered with the ultimate goal of finding permanent families.”

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