While more than half of Palm Beach County foster children have attorneys looking out for their legal rights in court, those in the rest of the state are not as lucky.
Only 8 percent of Florida's more than 32,000 foster children had an attorney by their side in court in fiscal year 2010 - 11, according to a new report on kids in state custody.
That's largely because Florida has no law requiring that foster children have an attorney provided during court proceedings. That prompted First Star, a children's rights advocacy organization, to give Florida a grade of F in a separate national report issued in early May.
"Florida is pretty good, it gives children a lot of rights, but it doesn't give them an attorney. What good is it for a kid to go to a court hearing without an attorney?" said John Walsh, co-supervising attorney of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County's Foster Children's Project.
Palm Beach County's numbers are significantly higher that the rest of the state's because it is the only county where an administrative order issued by the court system requires that children ages 12 and younger and their siblings have legal representation, said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida's Children First.
Additionally, the Legal Aid Society's three programs tailored to foster children - the Foster Children's Project, the Juvenile Advocacy Project and Minor Mothers - get tax money from the Children's Services Council of Palm Beach County to help pay for lawyers, Spudeas said.
The CSC is a special taxing district that supports dozens of social service agencies that help needy children and families across the county.
This year, for example, the Foster Children's Project, which provides attorneys for nearly 400 kids, received $1.8 million from the CSC. The Juvenile Advocacy Project received about $349,000, according to council records.
Palm Beach County is "the only place where we have that system in place and the funding to legal aid," Spudeas said, adding that in most other regions statewide, foster children are usually represented by a volunteer from the state's guardian ad litem program or pro bono attorneys.
Palm Beach County fared best of the Department of Children and Families' 20 districts - with 53 percent of its foster children paired up with attorneys - according to "Fighting for Children's Rights: Legal Representation of Dependent Children," a report by the nonprofit Florida's Children First and a University of Florida law student.
Miami-Dade and Broward counties, by comparison, had about 15 percent of children under state care with access to an attorney.
"Children 'fortunate' enough to come into state care in South Florida, especially in Palm Beach County, have a decent chance of being provided lawyers. But for children in the rest of the state, the prospect of obtaining counsel ranges from slim to none," the report said.
At court hearings, DCF officials and case management agencies often discuss a child's needs and such details as how he or she is doing in school and make decisions about when or whether the child will be reunited with relatives.
Data show that districts with strong legal systems for foster children move them through foster care more quickly and offer kids a sense of stability while they are away from their families, Spudeas said.
But in a typical case in family court in Florida, all parties involved - DCF, the child's parents and the case management agencies - have attorneys, except for the child, Spudeas said.
Having a lawyer makes foster children "feel like somebody was fighting for them, somebody was on their side that they knew was looking out for them 100 percent of the time," Spudeas said. "That gives them a voice, it gives them a real feeling that this system is working for me, something is working for me."
Walsh said the guardian ad litem program fulfills its mission of pairing a foster child with a volunteer who gives family court judges information about the child's needs. But these volunteers should never replace an attorney, he said. He said Florida legislators need to make it illegal for a child to walk into a courtroom without an attorney. Under Florida law, the only foster children required to have legal counsel in custody hearings are those who object to being sent to locked mental health facilities.
"We keep trying to fix the Department of Children and Families and nobody wants to look at our system of representation and say, 'Maybe that would be part of this fix,' " Walsh said.
Ten years ago while visiting China, Walsh said, he read about the disappearance of Miami-Dade foster child Rilya Wilson and wondered when things were going to improve for foster children in Florida. Then last year, there was the case of Nubia Barahona, a 10-year-old Miami-Dade girl under Florida supervision who was found dead in West Palm Beach.
"We keep trying to do the same things over and over, and we keep getting the same results," Walsh said. "Nobody looks at the fact that maybe we should give these kids attorneys and get them out of foster care before something happens."
But Alan Abramowitz, who heads the state's guardian ad litem program, points out that state legislators have said they want courts to focus on the best interests of foster children, not just their legal interests.
While he agreed all children should have an attorney in court, he said it is the volunteer guardians who often tell the judge what a child's needs and wants are and what is needed to ensure the child is safe.
Abramowitz added that the guardian ad litem program tries to recruit volunteer guardians who are lawyers by trade and provides attorneys when a judge requests it.
"My whole mission is to make sure every child has a voice through our program," he said.
By Ana M. Valdes, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: The Palm Beach Post