Only 14 states don’t guarantee children in the foster care system a lawyer to represent them when they have a court hearing. Come July, Florida may no longer be one of them — if lawmakers in Tallahassee pass a recently introduced bipartisan bill.
Even though court hearings are supposed to be primarily about serving the best interest of the child, they’re on their own as the judge and lawyers representing the state and the parents hash out the child’s fate.
How, child advocates ask rhetorically, is a 2-year-old — or even a 15-year-old — expected to argue for their rights?
“A lot of these kids, they’ve been abused and neglected,” said Robert Johnson, executive director of Brevard County Legal Aid, a nonprofit serving the Space Coast area of Florida, that has the money to provide a lawyer in these cases for only about 10% of the 800 children who need one each year.
“It’s important for kids to have a voice. They’re surrounded in court by professionals that speak a different language,” Johnson said, according to WESH 2 News. “They need help to navigate through that system. And they need somebody to be their voice in that system. Otherwise they are not going to be heard.”
Earlier this month, Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, a Democrat from Plantation, and state Rep. Randy Maggard, a Republican from Dade City, introduced companion legislation that would provide counsel working specifically for those children. If it passes, it would go into effect July 1.
Among other things, having counsel would ensure that youth who might be aging out of foster care get all the transitional help they are entitled to — a process that can be time-consuming and complicated as they must work through the state’s child welfare agency to secure any income supports as well as educational, mental health and medical services.
For younger kids in care, having a lawyer working on their behalf can mean shorter stays in the system. Studies show that the less time children spend in care and the more quickly they can find a permanent, stable home, the more successful they tend to be later.
So far, there has been no official estimate of the proposal’s cost, but Johnson said that shouldn’t matter.
“Kids are important. I would argue that there should be no price tag that’s too high to protect the welfare of our kids,” he said.