By Jan Pudlow
With the crucial support of Statewide Guardian ad Litem Director Alan Abramowitz, bills in both the House and Senate are moving forward to provide state-paid attorneys for dependent children with special needs.
“It’s the first time in history we have a director of the GAL supportive of attorneys representing children,” said Howard Talenfeld, a Ft. Lauderdale attorney who serves as president of Florida’s Children First, an advocacy group pushing the proposed legislation.
When Talenfeld was president of The Florida Bar’s Legal Needs of Children Committee in 2009, he fought unsuccessfully to persuade the former GAL director to support legislation that would provide attorneys for dependent children, a key recommendation of the predecessor 2002 Legal Needs of Children Commission. He referred to the child advocates’ clashing views on representation over the years as “the Crusades.”
“It’s very important to signal to the guardians of the world that the Crusades are over,” Talenfeld said the day before CS/SB 972, sponsored by Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, passed unanimously out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 1.
Abramowitz was there to support the bill, as was Steve Metz, chief legislative counsel for The Florida Bar. The bill now heads for its third stop in the Appropriations Committee.
A companion bill in the House, CS/HB 561, sponsored by Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, passed unanimously out of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on April 2, and next goes to its third stop in the Judiciary Committee.
When pro bono attorneys are not available, the court-appointed attorneys would be paid through a new and specific line item in the Justice Administrative Commission budget, and would not negatively impact the GAL budget, Abramowitz said. Attorneys’ fees would be capped at $3,000 per child, per year.
“The GAL’s ‘best interest’ attorneys and volunteers, working with attorneys created by this new legislative proposal on these complex cases, will be a formidable advocacy team to get children permanency,” Abramowitz said.
“I have never seen it as an either/or issue. I think each child needs a guardian, clearly, because that’s what the law says. Guardians do a lot more than legal. They mentor for the child and work in the educational system. They work with the child in group homes and with foster parents. A lot of stuff doesn’t even get to court that we can fix.”
But, Abramowitz said, there is clearly a need for attorneys, too, for five categories of special needs children:
* Children placed in skilled nursing facilities. Currently, there are only 11 children in foster care in this status in Florida, and this category was the only one specified in legislation, based on proviso language in the 2013 General Appropriations Act. “With the attorneys and GAL Program working together, the outcomes achieved in these cases have shown that we can work collectively to achieve results that are clearly in the children’s best interest,” Abramowitz said. “Some of the children who were in nursing homes are now adopted or reunified with their parents.”
* Children who are prescribed and refuse to take psychotropic medication. There is already a requirement in the Florida Administrative Code for these children to have attorneys. The proposed law would “simply fund the process when a pro bono attorney is not available,” Abramowitz said.
* Children with developmental disabilities. “With our GAL ‘best interest’ attorneys already carrying high caseloads, I consider attorneys in this category an added resource to ensure the child is placed on the Medicaid Waiver or getting the services he or she needs,” Abramowitz said.
* Children placed or being considered for placement in locked residential treatment centers. “This is already required under case law, based on the 2000 Florida Supreme Court opinion M.W. v. Davis and Rule 8.350, Florida Rules of Juvenile Procedure,” Abramowitz said. “The GAL Program would continue to advocate for placement that is in the ‘best interest’ of the child. The proposed bill would simply fund the attorney when a pro bono attorney is not available.”
* Children who are victims of human trafficking. “The unique issues that these children have, especially with regard to being witnesses in criminal cases, and possibly facing prosecution, justifies the child having an attorney,” Abramowitz said.
As Abramowitz told his staff and supporters: “I passionately believe in the work we do for these children, and I believe this legislation will not interfere with our representation of children or our ability to secure resources to represent 100 percent of the children in Florida’s dependency system. There is no question in my mind that this will enhance the GAL Program as we work with the attorneys appointed as a result of this new legislation.”