In the absence of a statewide system to provide counsel for children, a patchwork of legal representation has grown circuit by circuit.
No child should be a party to a legal proceeding in which her life is on the line without having her own lawyer. Basic due process is a simple proposition, right? Wrong. Fewer than 10 percent of children in Florida’s foster care system are represented by counsel in dependency proceedings. Of course, these children have the right to have an attorney, if they can find one. The children, however, have no statutory right to be appointed counsel. Florida’s failure to provide counsel puts it in the minority of states, one of only 10 to earn an “F” grade on a national report card (see First Star, A Child’s Right to Counsel, Third edition, available at floridaschildrenfirst.org).
In 2002 the Florida Bar Commission on the Legal Needs of Children recommended that the state provide counsel for dependent children in a variety of contexts. In 2010, the Florida Bar adopted a legislative position that promotes that position. That year, legislation was filed but not passed.
In the absence of a statewide system to provide counsel for children, a patchwork of legal representation has grown circuit by circuit. In February 2012, Florida’s Children First and the University of Florida Levin College of Law Center on Children and Families issued the first comprehensive report on access to counsel by circuit (also available at floridaschildrenfirst.org). The report shows that access to counsel, working with an organized program, varies widely. In Palm Beach County, attorneys represented 53 percent of children in out-of home care. The Third, Tenth and Twelfth Judicial Circuits had no attorneys directly representing children. In Hillsborough County, the L. David Shear Children’s Law Center of Bay Area Legal Services is the only organized provider of legal counsel. With 2.5 lawyers on staff at the time of the report, they represented 4 percent of foster children in Hillsborough County.
Unfortunately, the availability of counsel for children has decreased since the data was collected. The Florida Bar Foundation, the primary statewide funder, has had to make drastic across-the-board funding cuts. Locally, the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County has chosen to reduce and may soon eliminate its funding for lawyers for children.
On the bright side, a number of communities are stepping up to create pro bono projects to train and support attorneys to represent dependent children. Miami-Dade has long enjoyed the efforts of hundreds of volunteers working with Lawyers for Children America to directly represent children in foster care. Bar-Legal Aid partnerships in Broward and Duval counties have started projects recently. A new project in Hillsborough, Crossroads for Florida Kids, Inc., is under way now.
Florida’s foster children deserve meaningful and effective assistance of legal counsel. That is best provided by well-trained, supervised and adequately compensated lawyers who have access to the resources needed to do the job right. A cadre of dedicated pro bono lawyers will always be needed to handle conflict cases, and in times of low funding, to pick up where organized providers have to leave off.