Who is there to help a foster child with disabilities who turns 18 and becomes a legal adult?
Deborah Schroth is taking the lead on focusing on another issue of the Regis Little Subcommittee of the Legal Needs of Children Committee: the need for guardians for youth with disabilities aging out of foster care.
“People had the mistaken belief that those children were ‘placed’ with the Agency for Persons with Disabilities and APD somehow had custody over them. But that’s not true and it’s never been true,” said Schroth, with Children’s Legal Services at the Department of Children and Families in Orange Park.
“Because when each of us turns 18, we become an adult, and no one has custody or direction over us.”
She told how she became involved in a “significant case” of a child living in an APD home.
“I asked, ‘Well, who is going to become his guardian when he turns 18?’ And everybody looks at me like I’m nuts because he’s in an APD home. I said, ‘Are you nuts? Nobody has guardianship.’ So we scrambled to try to find a guardian. And it was through working on that case and subsequent cases that I learned that although there is an Office of the Public Guardian, funded somewhat by the Legislature, it is not adequately funded.
“And there are not Offices of the Public Guardian in every circuit in the state. And even when there are Offices of the Public Guardian . . . they were never set up to provide guardians for young adults. . . . They deal primarily with elderly folks,” Schroth said.
“When we started asking, we had some offices say: ‘No, we just don’t handle children,’ and other offices would say: ‘We already have a waiting list, and your client can get on the waiting list.’
“So, we are looking at: How do we find guardians? These children were placed with DCF many years ago, and parental rights were terminated, back in the day when the parents had to give up their rights in order to get services for their children. So we have these young adults or children becoming young adults who have no family anymore.”
Typically, these children coming out of foster care have no money to pay for professional guardians, Schroth added. She asked for anyone interested in helping “define the problem and trying to figure out creative solutions,” to let her know. Schroth said she wants to work with the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section members on the issue, because it’s their area of the law.
Sharon Langer immediately volunteered to help, saying she has “two years of hands-on experience” with the issue at the Dade County Legal Aid Society.
Eleventh Circuit Judge Sandy Karlan, the chair of the original Legal Needs of Children Commission, said: “It seems to me we are trying to catch them at the end. There’s been a real failure prior to that. . . . If they had a lawyer who was representing them, they would have been noticing that they are about to age out, that they are not getting all of the assistance they need, and they should have been prepared for that by the [Department of Children and Families] that has custody.
“The department just puts them out on the street. I don’t mean they did it with malice. But I am saying that, again, remember that representation is a piece.”