Legal Needs of Children Committee applauds new law
By Jan Pudlow
The hard-fought battle and long wait to give children lawyers in dependency court was cause for celebration at the Legal Needs of Children Committee meeting.
The Legislature passed and Gov. Scott signed into law a $4.5 million appropriation and statutory authorization for lawyers to assist the most vulnerable children with special needs in five categories.
Outgoing Chair Bill Booth gathered key players from the predecessor Legal Needs of Children Commission to honor them with plaques and applause, in recognition that at least some of the recommendations in the commission’s 2002 report have been carried out. A dozen years later, everyone agreed more needs to be done.
“It’s a call to action,” Booth said at the Bar’s Annual Convention in Orlando. “It’s to remind everyone how viable the commission’s 2002 report still is, in terms of representation. We finally have some support, and we cannot let it die. This is just the beginning for us.”
Former Bar President Edith Osman, who created the commission in 1999, said: “I am happy to take credit for it, but you know, my friend, Judge Karlan, she was a judge in the juvenile division, and she kept telling me about what was going on. And that was a lot of my impetus for creating the commission.”
Eleventh Circuit Judge Sandy Karlan, who chaired the commission, said, “We did not want to have a report that sat on the shelf. I am so grateful that we still have this committee.”
Jesse Diner, Florida Bar president in 2009, said getting consensus was “the difficult part. But we did that and we brought it to the Board of Governors. And it became a big Bar position. Four years later, we have something to show for it. That’s really great. And, hopefully, this is just the start.”
That the Bar had a legislative position that children in dependency court should have lawyers, too, came at a critical juncture to get the bill heard by a Senate committee, said Howard Talenfeld, who chaired the Legal Needs of Children Committee in 2009.
“The Florida Bar’s support and resolution for this legislation gave us the ability to say it was a consensus Bar position. That really was critical at a specific time during the legislative process to know we had the Bar behind us,” said Talenfeld, a Ft. Lauderdale attorney who serves as president of Florida’s Children First, an advocacy group.
A member of Talenfeld’s law firm, Nicole Fried, was recognized for lobbying for the passage of CS/SB 972, sponsored by Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and CS/HB 561, sponsored by Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami.
The new law provides mandatory legal representation in Chapter 39 dependency proceedings for five categories of children: those with developmental disabilities, living in nursing homes, headed for residential treatment centers, prescribed psychotropic medications, and victims of human trafficking.
When pro bono attorneys are not available, the court-appointed attorneys will be paid through a new and specific line item of $4.5 million in the Justice Administrative Commission budget, and would not impact the Guardian ad Litem budget. Attorneys’ fees will be capped at $3,000 per child, per year.
“So it is now law,” Booth said. “In a sense, it requires whole child representation. It doesn’t use those words, but it says you come to represent the child for these five reasons, you are to make sure that everything else going on with the kid is taken care of, as well. To me, that is like a coup. I don’t know if anyone realizes it yet, but there is so much you can do for kids in these proceedings.”
It was essential that Statewide Guardian ad Litem Director Alan Abramowitz, another former chair, supported the bill. He said “the GAL’s ‘best interest’ attorneys and volunteers, working with attorneys on these complex cases, will be a formidable advocacy team to get children permanency.”
Booth thanked Abramowitz for improving the lives of Florida’s foster children, saying, “We know that without your support this bill would not have passed.”
Talenfeld called the passage of the law “an historic first step to be able to realize the vision of the original Legal Needs Commission report that children need representation. We’ve accomplished the legislation, which is a recognition of the actual right for disabled children to have lawyers, and we have an appropriation of $4.5 million. At the same time, we know this is just the most vulnerable population in the state of Florida, and there are so many more children who need the benefit of lawyers.”
Booth said he wants to “keep the momentum going and create energy,” and the next step is “to make sure the attorneys doing this work are well trained and know what they’re doing, so the judges are happy.”
After the meeting, Judge Karlan said, “It’s taken 12 years to get the first step done. It just goes to show the commitment of the members of the commission, and I would say to the succeeding committee that has worked on these issues to never give up and keep pushing forward. And after today’s meeting, I am encouraged that they are not going to give up, and they will keep moving forward.”
Karlan noted that former Bar President Miles McGrane, who supported the commission’s work, was present at the meeting, along with original commission members Judge Mike Jones and Bernie Perlmutter.
“As Mike Jones said after the ceremony, we were a group of professionals with disparate opinions, who came together and produced a unanimous recommendation,” Karlan said in a thank-you message to Booth to share with committee members.
“We didn’t know it would take so long to implement some changes; however, we always knew that substantial change takes time. We are grateful that the report still provides guidance and a path today for the committee. I especially want to thank you and all the previous chairs and members of this committee for continuing this important work and taking it to new levels. The children of Florida will be better for your work.”