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Proposed Law to Provide Attorneys for Disabled Children Passes House Civil Justice Sub- committee

Tallahassee, Fla. – (February 19, 2014) – By a unanimous vote, HB 561, sponsored by Representative Erik Fresen (Miami), was approved by Florida’s House Civil Justice Sub-committee today. The proposed bill would provide attorneys for Florida’s disabled children who linger in foster care for an average of up to five years, and sometimes longer.

“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,” said Rep. Fresen, the bill’s House sponsor. “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 residency.”

Under HB 561, the attorney would provide necessary legal services, including Medicare waiver benefits and, most importantly, seek to focus dependency courts on finding permanent families for these children. 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, like the Florida Agency for Persons with Disabilities, the Agency for Health Care Administration or the Social Security Administration.

Consider the case of Tamiyah Audain. The severely disabled 12-year-old from Broward County 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 could not care for Tamiyah. She eventually died from starvation and neglect – both of which could have been prevented if she had an attorney to request Medicaid waiver benefits to support her placement from state agencies. The benefits were never requested.

“HB 561 doesn’t create a new program, but provides a mechanism to guarantee that these disabled children are represented by attorneys with the critical expertise needed to handle these extremely dedicated and complex cases,” said Rep. Fresen.

“These children need the help of specially trained lawyers through the Guardian ad Litem Program to supplement the volunteers already provided by the GAL Program,” said Christina Spudeas, Executive Director of Florida’s Children First, a statewide children’s advocacy group. “These are complicated cases that often go beyond dependency court, and may include administrative appeals related to eligibility and denial of benefits. The cases can be so complicated that families often don’t even know to ask for the care in many cases.”

Senator Bill Galvano (Bradenton) is the Senate companion bill sponsor.

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