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Herald Column: Give Vulnerable, Foster Kids a Voice in the System

By Howard Talenfeld

The most significant way Florida can improve the lives of at-risk children is to provide each of them with legal representation, something currently missing from our judicial system.

This spring, Florida lawmakers are expected to take up consensus legislation crafted by the Florida Bar and Florida’s Children First that provides attorneys to children with critical needs and to protect the rights of all children in dependency proceedings.

The Children’s Legal Representation Act, as it’s called, also gives the courts the ability and authority to appoint state-provided counsel for children, whether they be paid or not.

Providing children with their own attorneys will protect them from being further victimized by the system itself. The Florida Bar Commission on the Legal Needs of Children has identified several categories of children who are most in need of representation.

First are those children stuck in state care. Studies have found that children who are represented by counsel have a significantly reduced length of stay in foster care. The other categories are kids with disabilities, those on psychotropic medications, in residential treatment facilities, those who will age out of care at 18 or 19 without a permanent family and those with education concerns.

Additionally, Florida needs to adopt the national practice of attorneys and guardians ad litem working together in critical cases. This legislation recognizes that Florida needs to protect the Guardian Ad Litem program’s funding so that attorneys and guardians ad litem can work together in the child’s best interest.

We appoint attorneys for the parents of these children, and every other party to the juvenile-dependency process has state-funded legal representation, except the kids. These children deserve better; children in most other states in the nation get better; it is time for Florida’s children to get better as well.

Howard M. Talenfeld is president of Florida’s Children First, a statewide child advocacy group based in Coral Springs.

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