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March 15, 2000
Commission continues identifying legal needs of children

By Jan Pudlow
Associate Editor

A thumb-sucking 11-year-old girl has a baby of her own.

Tonight, in Florida, 14,000 children sleep in foster care homes, and what is
supposed to be temporary shelter drags on for an average stay of three
years.

"Push-out Kids," they call themselves — children as young as 9 are sent
to scavenge on the streets because Mama chose her new boyfriend over
her child.

At a detention hearing, children are released to their parents, even though
a judge had earlier terminated parental rights in dependency court. The
computers at the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of
Children & Families don't talk to each other.

Florida is locking up more and more juveniles: up to 55,000 in the past two
years, compared to below 30,000 in 1992-93, and most of the places are
run by private companies.

A lot more 10-year-olds are among the 15,000 drug arrests for possession
each year.

These were among the scenarios and statistics discussed when the
Florida Bar Commission on the Legal Needs of Children met for the third
time in Tallahassee on March 3.

While Eleventh Circuit Judge Sandy Karlan, who chairs the two-year
special commission, admitted the scope of problems can be
overwhelming, she reminded everyone that in this first year, their job is to
gather information, learn, and prioritize the needs. Next year, the goal will
be trying to solve the most glaring unmet needs of children who appear in
Florida's courtrooms, whether as victims, witnesses or defendants.

"We plan to identify all of the legal needs of children, and see which ones
are being met and which ones are not," Judge Karlan said. "Once the
unmet needs have been identified, we will propose solutions and look for
answers."

Claudia Wright, a long-time advocate for children's legal needs who now
runs Gator TeamChild, a clinical law program at the University of Florida
law school, will supervise her law students in doing research for the
commission.

And Judge Karlan called Wright's upcoming research, "a great gift."

The full-day's agenda included:

An update from Gwynne Young, on the American Bar Association's
Committee on the Unmet Legal Needs of Children. She said they
are busy updating the book, "America's Children at Risk," adding a
chapter on "Children and Violence." In general, hot topics include
transfers of juveniles into adult court, conditions of confinement,
juveniles and the death penalty, guns and unified family courts.

"Martha Barnett has a real interest in children's issues as the
incoming president of the ABA," Young said. "And she is working
with the chair of the ABA steering committee at looking at how she
will focus on children's issues during her administration."

A presentation from Willson McTavish, The Children's Lawyer in
Ontario, Canada, that investigates, advocates, protects and
represents children's personal and property rights in various court
proceedings, similar in concept to our Guardian ad Litem Program,
but larger in scope.

"No disrespect to our judges, but they don't like to touch the dirty
stuff of children's issues," he said. "A unified family court makes
you part of it. This is new, and we are in real growing pains."

He also told the commission: "Children are persons under your
constitution and ours. They are persons as soon as they leave the
birth canal," McTavish said. "We have to remember that children
really should have the rights of adults. And if you think that way,
you are a long way toward solving the problems."

Quoting a phrase he saw in New Yorker magazine, McTavish said:
"The catch is that children should not be visited with the sins of
their parents. Think of it that way. They are individuals in the
constitution with their own rights and freedoms to grow in this life or
not."

A statistical slide show from Ted Tollett, chief of DJJ's Bureau of
Research & Data, who reported that females now make up 44.3
percent of juvenile cases. And, nationally, there has been a
124-percent increase in females for violent cases in juvenile court.

Of kids committed to a juvenile facility, he said, 89 percent do not
have both parents, 20 percent have a serious mental illness, and 75
percent have a substance abuse problem.

Sixteen percent of "chronic offenders" (those with three cases)
were responsible for committing 46 percent of juvenile crime.

One in six juvenile crime careers begin before the age of 13.

And of the state's 10 boot camps, Martin County has the best
success rate (84 percent), while Tallahassee's Leon County boot
camp consistently comes in last (45.5 percent).

Information on the special needs of girls in the juvenile system from
Eileen Brown, on the Girls Advocacy Project Community Advisory
Board in Miami.

"I want to put a face on the girls in the system," Brown said. "The
number of girls has skyrocketed. Before they were invisible,
because there were no programs in place."

Eighty-percent of the girls in the juvenile system are victims of
physical abuse, she said, and 70 percent are victims of sexual
abuse.

"The girls are very much damaged before they come into the
system. Being abused and neglected increases the chances of
being arrested as a juvenile by 53 percent. Violence begets
violence."

Brown spoke of the "strong link between depression and
delinquency," girls who turn to drugs and drinking to dull their pain
from being abused. When they get in trouble, Brown said, girls'
detention tends to last five times longer than boys'.

"So many of these girls are not violent kids. . .even though it may
look like it on paper," Brown said, adding, "It's hard to have a
diversion program when there's nothing set up for girls."

Tops on her wish list, she said, is that we "recognize that issues
facing at-risk girls are different than for boys. Gender-specific
programs are crucial in their healthy transition to womanhood."

The meeting's agenda ended with true-life stories from two survivors of
growing up in foster care, Sara Bennett and Alex Victorero, who serve on
Youth Advisory Boards for the Department of Children & Families.

Tears glistened in the eyes of several commission members who listened
to their wrenching stories of being raised in foster care since they were
little children, and in both cases, being sexually abused in foster care that
was supposed to protect them.

Victorero, whose father beat him since he was 2 and tried to lead him into
a life of crime, said his saving grace was his Guardian ad Litem who
helped him navigate the system and was there to listen to him no matter
what.

"I knew he was my outlet, and I knew I had people behind me," Victorero
said. "Sure, bad things happened that shouldn't, but I was able to make it
a positive thing."

Kathleen Kearney, a former judge who is secretary of the Department
Children & Families, said there are not enough guardians for every case.

"The vast majority of children go unrepresented," Kearney said. "And a
strong, consistent advocate over time makes a difference. I can tell you
that in 10 1/2 years as a judge in dependency court, when you have
limited guardians, you ask: `Do these children have anybody advocating
for them?' And if there's a strong foster parent, they let the foster parent
advocate."

Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente, who is a member of the
commission, shook her head and said, "We have a system that gives an
attorney to the mother and father, yet we don't have the resources to make
sure every child has an advocate."

Ninth Judicial Circuit Judge Daniel Dawson, a member of the commission
who also chairs the Dependency Court Improvement Program, asked the
foster-care survivors how they got over their anger at the system from
removing them from their parents.

And Victorero explained the anger this way: "You took him away from his
life, and he wants to go back to it. That was your life and it wasn't bad to
you."

Finally realizing that it was better for him to survive without his parents
came only after "time, reflection and therapy. . . All of this worked for me
at age 12. I started to understand things that weren't so concrete."

Bennett, a graduate of Florida State University, a new home-owner and
state Youth Advisory Board coordinator and employee at the Department
of Children & Families, told the commission members: "A lot of times
foster parents treat you like you're not part of the family. Their kids eat
steak and potatoes, while you eat a peanut-butter sandwich in another
room. You're the one down on your knees with a toothbrush cleaning the
bathroom because the social worker is supposed to visit.

"I think if kids really felt part of that family, it would be easier to get over
some of the attachments you know you can't go back to," Bennett said.

"Compare being in foster care to what it would be like to be in jail. And
sometimes people in jail have more rights than kids in foster care. You get
a swift kick into your own life without money. And if you need therapy, it's
tough luck. I think if we start looking at kids in the foster care system as
real people with real issues, they won't be the ones coming up 10 years
later robbing you and shooting you."

And Bennett dropped these numbers to ponder: Sixty percent of the prison
population were once foster kids. Eighty percent of homeless people were
once foster kids.

"If you pen an animal up and not let him run and play, he will bite you one
day. If you treat foster kids as animals, they're going to become a criminal
one day."

[Revised: 11-16-2014]