The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

Annual Reports: Legal Needs of Children

Family Law

Legal Needs of Children

Ten years ago, The Florida Bar Commission on the Legal Needs of Children was formed by Bar President Edith Osman to issue a report and recommendation on improving the legal representation for children in the state of Florida. In 2002, this commission, composed of leadership from the Guardian ad Litem Program, judges, legislators, and dependency experts, issued its report after hearing public testimony from national experts and debating this issue for three years. Six years ago, The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors officially made the Legal Needs of Children Committee a standing, public service committee. The committee was created to find ways to implement the 2002 recommendations of the commission. Historically, the committee has sought to achieve this goal by emphasizing issues of representation, rules of court and judicial process, competency and confidentiality, and standards of practice. Florida Bar President Jesse Diner charged our committee with finishing the job. The committee ended its sixth year by approving a draft legislation that would provide for the legal representation of dependent children by fighting to pass this legislation while protecting the legislative funding of the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program, finalizing guidelines for representation in delinquency cases, and moving incrementally forward with its work to obtain certification for lawyers representing children.

Representation Legislation — This year, the committee achieved President Diner’s goal by obtaining approval from the full committee, The Florida Bar Legislative Committee, and The Florida Bar Board of Governors of consensus draft legislation that would implement report of the Legal Needs of Children Commission to provide for the right of dependent children to have legal representation and state-funded representation of dependent children in critical categories. Our committee, composed of members of leadership from the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program, the Florida Department of Children and Family Services, Florida Bar Foundation grantees from Legal Aid Programs, members of the judiciary, and dependency practitioners, participated in revising last year’s draft legislation to forge a compromise. As part of the process, the committee worked with and considered input from many other persons and organizations including independent members of the state and federal judiciary, members of the Florida Legislature, Florida’s Children’s First, Florida Youth Shine, and leadership from the Executive Branch. Then, a joint committee of members of the Legal Needs of Children Committee and the Family Law Section refined the compromise into a draft bill that was subsequently supported by the Legal Needs of Children Committee, the Family Law Section, and the Public Interest Law Section. After approval by The Florida Bar Legislative Committee, with the support and leadership of Florida President Jesse Diner, the board approved the below position by a 42-3 vote.

To adequately promote and protect the legal rights and remedies of children, The Florida Bar supports the development of a comprehensive system and structure for child representation that includes Guardian ad Litem representation, Public Defender representation, and legal representation by both government paid counsel and pro bono attorneys by way of legislation substantially similar to the draft legislation approved by the Standing Committee on the Legal Needs of Children on November 16, 2009, which would create a statewide program of legal representation with some or all of the following components:

1) No child shall be denied the right to have the representation by an attorney for the child appearing on the child’s behalf in a dependency case whether volunteer or state paid;

2) Provides for representation that is paid for by the state of Florida in conjunction with local, foundation, or pro bono support in certain critical categories of dependency cases, recognizing that the ability to create such mandatory representation depends on the amount of new and dedicated revenue appropriated by the Florida Legislature and subject to the protection of the funding of the GAL program and funding for the courts; and/or

3) Permits representation of children in other discretionary categories of children in dependency cases and for other children, recognizing that the ability to create such discretionary representation depends on the amount of new dedicated revenue appropriated by the Florida Legislature and subject to the protection of the current funding of the GAL program and funding for the courts.

The categories of representation referenced by the legislation in the bill include children “stuck in state care” on average for more than two years, children with disabilities, children on psychotropic medications, children in residential treatment facilities, children who will age out of the system, and children with education concerns. As the estimated fiscal impact was $15 million when Florida’s budget crisis struck, a scaled down bill was filed, SB 1860. As the legislative session winds down, pursuant to the resolution, The Florida Bar has been fighting successfully to protect the budget of Florida’s GAL program and is still pressing to pass representation legislation.

I would like to acknowledge the tremendous efforts of all of the committee members, The Florida Bar Legislative Committee, The Florida Bar Board of Governors, and President Diner for their exceptional efforts in fighting for the rights of dependent children.

Certification — The committee is actively working to obtain certification status for child welfare advocates, a process the committee began in 2006. This year’s subcommittee, headed by John J. Copelan, Jr., is spearheading the process for obtaining certification through The Florida Bar. Several steps toward certification were taken this year. The subcommittee secured the Public Interest Law Section’s agreement to be a joint sponsor. Also, several working groups have been formed, including standards development, editing and drafting, and educational opportunities. We are addressing questions raised by the Florida Bar Board of Legal Specialization and Education and anticipate a request will be filed next year.

Delinquency Guidelines — The committee completed its work on delinquency guideline standards, which have been approved by the full committee.

I would also like to personally thank Paul Hill, our Bar staff liaison, and Elizabeth May, his assistant, for all of their outstanding assistance and their dedication to Florida’s children.

Howard Talenfeld, Chair

Family Law