by Edith G. Osman
Sara was 13 when she was raped by her stepfather, became pregnant and
gave birth to a son. Her first appearance in Dade's circuit court was in the
dependency division, where she came as an abused child seeking the
court's protection and a guardian ad litem. Her second appearance was as
a witness in her stepfather's criminal trial. She later appeared in the court's
juvenile division, when she was appointed a lawyer for the termination of
her parental rights so the child could be adopted. The court appointed
another guardian ad litem for the infant.
In another Dade case, two children saw their father murder their mother.
They appeared first in dependency court with a guardian ad litem, then in
criminal court as witnesses, and finally in family court, when relatives
sought to adopt them. They also were represented in probate court to
settle their mother's estate.
These cases are extraordinary, but illustrate that children appear in every
division of our courts every day, sometimes with representation, and
sometimes without. Gone are the times when kids came to court only
when they had been caught stealing a bicycle, or as subjects of a custody
The American Bar Association recognized this several years ago with a
resolution calling on state and local bars to examine how our justice
system treats children. The ABA's Standing Committee on the Unmet
Legal Needs of Children found states increasingly focused on
improvements to the juvenile justice system and the dependency system,
but saw a need to look at how all areas of the system treated children. To
date, no state has taken a comprehensive look at children's legal needs in
all of our court divisions.
That is precisely the charge I have given The Florida Bar Commission on
the Legal Needs of Children: to look at the whole system, discern what we
are doing right and where we need to be doing more, and, where
appropriate, to make recommendations for change. Some of you may
recall that we undertook a similar study 10 years ago, under the
leadership of then-President Steve Zack, which made numerous
recommendations, many of which have been adopted by the legislature
and the courts.
As Florida lawyers we already have much to be proud of in this area. Child
advocates — many of them lawyers — are moving our state in the right
direction. In recent years we have seen the creation of the Department of
Juvenile Justice and the reorganization of the Department of Children and
Families, both in response to legal needs of children. We have seen
substantive amendments to the dependency statute and the Rules of
Juvenile Procedure, with the legislatively prescribed goal of having a
permanent plan for children adjudicated dependent in place within one year
of the child entering the system. We have seen the creation of the
Dependency Court Improvement Project, and the annual Dependency
Summit. We have seen lawyers and judges organizing and serving on
local Children's Services Councils in our communities. We have seen the
Florida Bar Foundation prioritize programs serving the legal needs of
children, granting more than $600,000 to those programs last year, and
set to grant another $550,000 this month. And the Supreme Court's
Family Court Steering Committee is charged with the responsibility of
designing a unified, family-friendly court. The list goes on.
But we know that unaddressed needs remain. Florida's under-18
population rose 33 percent in 15 years. Abuse and neglect reports rose by
300 percent nationally during the same time period — to more than 3
million each year.
The goal of the commission is to identify the unmet legal needs of children
in Florida and to propose solutions for those unmet needs. The members
of the commission will consider children's needs when they appear as
parties, witnesses and defendants in cases. They will consider their rights
to ownership of assets in civil and probate cases and their rights under the
Marchman and Baker acts, as well as the confidentiality rules in juvenile
court. The commission will also consider recommending the creation of a
children's code to incorporate all laws relating to juveniles.
If children are indeed our most prized possession, our most precious
resource, then we must do more. Our deeds must match our rhetoric. As
those who labor in the law, we are uniquely qualified to craft new ways to
meet these challenges.
With the new commission we are bringing together a group of very
talented, very dedicated professionals. Judge Sandy Karlan has agreed to
chair the commission, and brings to the group's work 17 years as a
respected family lawyer and service in the 11th Circuit's family and juvenile
divisions. Vice chairs are Gerald I. Kornreich, a board certified family
lawyer with more than 20 years' experience, and Sharon Langer, also a
highly experienced family lawyer and director of the Dade County Legal
Aid Society. Chief Justice Major Harding has appointed Justice Fred Lewis
to be the court's liaison and member.
Other members of the commission include:
Judge Ronald V. Alvarez of West Palm Beach, currently assigned
to the juvenile division.
Judge Brian Jordan Davis of Jacksonville, currently assigned to the
Judge Norman Gerstein of Miami, who has been on the bench more
than 20 years and has served in all divisions of the court.
Joni Goodman, director of the Guardian ad Litem Program for Dade
County's Juvenile Court.
Victoria Ho, a certified matrimonial lawyer in Naples.
Judge Michael Jones of Pensacola, another highly experienced
judge who has served in all divisions of the court, and past chair of
the Conference of Circuit Court Judges.
Kathleen Ann Kearney, Secretary of the Department of Children
and Families and a former juvenile court judge.
Maria Landin, a member of the Youth Advisory Board of the
Department of Children and the Independent Living Program of the
Department of Children and Families.
Carlos Martinez, who is in charge of social services for the Public
Defender's Office in Miami.
Fredrick Howard Lebron McClure, a respected civil attorney with
Holland & Knight in Tampa.
Richard Milstein, an experienced civil and probate attorney in
Miami, and past recipient of the Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service
Rep. Sandra Murman, a member of the Florida House of
Representatives from Tampa and chair of the House Committee on
the Department of Children and Families.
Pat O'Connell, a lobbyist in Tallahassee and legislative assistant to
former Secretary of Education Betty Castor.
Judge Frank Orlando, a retired judge who directs the Center for the
Study of Youth Policy at the Shepard Broad Law Center.
Justice Barbara J. Pariente of the Supreme Court of Florida.
Beverly Laura Parker, an attorney with more than 20 years'
experience in family law.
Bernie Perlmutter, director of the University of Miami School of
Law's Children and Youth Law Clinic.
Azim Ramilize, an attorney with the Department of Juvenile Justice.
Sen. Burt Leon Saunders, a member of the Florida Senate from
Naples with expertise in health law.
Dr. Edward Sczechowicz, a psychologist in Miami with expertise in
juvenile sexual offenders, and substantial experience in evaluations
in dependency and family court.
Robert Sechen, general counsel for the Department of Juvenile
Judge Lynn Tepper of Pasco County, who has extensive experience
with juvenile court issues, and currently serves in a unified division
of family, juvenile court.
Judge Martha Warner of the Fourth District Court of Appeal.
Diana Wasserman, a member of the Broward County School
Dr. Alisa Warner, a specialist in juvenile victims of sexual abuse at
Kristi House in Miami.
Gary Woodfield of West Palm Beach, an attorney with substantial
experience representing children.
Judge Daniel Dawson, a circuit court judge from Orlando who chairs
the Dependency Court Improvement Project.
This group, I believe, has the experience, expertise, and dedication to
develop within a two-year timeframe a blueprint for improving how our
justice system deals with our most vulnerable and impressionable
citizens. I encourage you to share any thoughts or ideas for improvements
with members of the commission, and to follow the commission's work
and embrace its recommendations.
By pulling together, we who are responsible for the justice system's
handling of the needs of children can improve their experience with our
courts, increase their respect for our system, and improve the lot of all
citizens of Florida.
I hope you will help.