When his foster parents declined to adopt him because of his behavior at school, “Matthew” was facing a bleak future, possible academic failure and placement in a day treatment program.
Oftentimes, children who have been abused, neglected or abandoned have behavioral problems. How a school or foster care system responds to a child’s behavior issues frequently determines whether the child thrives or drops out and/or ends up in the juvenile or adult criminal justice system.
Fortunately for Matthew, Jacksonville Area Legal Aid was appointed as his educational surrogate parent and supported his temporary placement in a therapeutic group home.
And by working closely with his teachers and school principal over an 11-month period, JALA obtained psycho-educational testing, qualified Matthew for exceptional student education services and collaborated with his teachers on the development of appropriate behavior interventions. As a result, Matthew’s behavior improved so dramatically that he was able to be placed in a regular classroom.
Matthew is one of the many children with developmental or emotional/mental disabilities languishing in foster care and education systems in Duval County.
Recognizing that children have special legal needs, and that those needs were going largely unmet, The Florida Bar Foundation began funding special annual grants for legal assistance to children in the early 1990s. The foundation’s priorities for its Children’s Legal Services grants include representation of foster youth and access to special education, medical, developmental and mental health services that are required under law. JALA, a valuable part of this effort, has received $522,555 in Children’s Legal Services grants from the foundation since the program began.
In the face of dramatic and devastating funding cuts due to the economic downturn in 2008 resulting in plunging interest rates, which remain suppressed, the foundation had to examine its funding capabilities. The Children’s Legal Services Grant Program continues as one of its top priorities.
In 2012-13, foundation provided $35,979 to help fund JALA’s Children’s Legal Services Project. Although the grant was much less than in previous years, it continues to be an important source of funding for the project.
Gifts from attorneys to the foundation from the Children’s Legal Services Campaign on the annual Florida Bar Fee Statement help support the foundation’s Children’s Legal Services grants, along with proceeds from The Florida Bar’s Kids Deserve Justice license plate initiative.
A 28 percent increase from 2012 to 2013 in contributions from Florida attorneys through The Florida Bar fee statement and direct gifts to the Foundation will help soften the cuts to the foundation’s Children’s Legal Services grants in the 2013-14 fiscal year, although the extended IOTA revenue slump and the resulting depletion of the foundation’s reserves will still necessitate further cuts.
Thanks to all who have and who continue to contribute during this time of critical need. Your help has made a tremendous difference by extending hope and opportunity, and in many instances, giving a voice to those who would otherwise be without one.
Jacksonville attorney Donny MacKenzie is a member of the litigation department at Holland & Knight and has served on the board of The Florida Bar Foundation since 2007. He is also a past president of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.