All children subject to court proceedings should have legal representation.
While Florida law provides for legal counsel for children subject to court proceedings because the child is accused of committing a crime, children who are subject to court proceedings because of allegations of abuse and neglect are entitled to legal representation in only a limited number of cases.
The Florida Legislature took a big step to remedy this in the most recent legislative session, now requiring representation for children with certain special needs.
Specifically, an attorney must be provided for a dependent child who resides in or is being considered for placement in a skilled nursing home; is prescribed psychotropic medication but objects to taking that medication; has been diagnosed with a developmental disability; is placed in a residential treatment facility or being considered for placement in a residential treatment center; or is a victim of human trafficking.
While this legislation is a big step forward, there are still circumstances where a child will be unrepresented in dependency without volunteer pro bono attorneys willing to act as the child’s attorney.
Pro bono organizations throughout the state have been providing legal representation for children for many years. Locally, through a joint initiative of The Jacksonville Bar Association’s Protecting Our Children Section and Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, an attorney ad litem Judicial Appointment Panel exists.
This panel consists of a group of dedicated attorneys from all areas of practice who accept appointment to represent children in dependency proceedings. These attorneys, who provide legal representation to children with the same duty of undivided loyalty, confidentiality, and zealous representation as would be afforded any adult client, provide the child with a voice in court.
Many of the attorneys who have agreed to accept appointments to represent a child have little or no experience in juvenile law or dependency court. The JBA Legal Needs of Children Committee provides training, mentoring, and support to attorneys willing to assist in this important work. Partnering with Florida’s Children First, a statewide non profit children’s advocacy organization; the local office of Holland & Knight; and Florida Coastal School of Law, training has been made available to more than 50 local attorneys over the past three years.
In addition to providing a platform for video training, JALA offers professional liability coverage to attorneys who would otherwise be unable to accept appointments. Attorneys ad litem are supported with on-going training opportunities, periodic networking lunches, and experienced juvenile attorneys available to mentor and assist them.
Those who do pro bono work would like to be able to report a “happy ending” and there are many such stories.
However, when representing dependent children (often referred to as “foster children”), we more often have “happy moments,” such as when a child who needs a new placement transitions successfully to a new foster home.
Because of the work of an attorney ad litem and/or educational surrogate, a child’s educational needs are met.
A teen mother is able to keep her child. These are the moments we all work for.
Best case? Children who have been removed from their home sare successfully reunited with their parents after appropriate services are offered to make the home safe again.
A child who cannot be returned home finds a permanent place with a new family through adoption.
That’s called permanency and that’s what we are all working for.
If you would like to help build happy moments and happy endings for a child, contact JALA or the JBA for more information through Kathy Para, chair of The JBA Pro Bono Committee, [email protected].