Now Hiring: Attorneys for Children

Florida’s dependent children finally have attorneys, or at least some of them do. Governor Scott today signed into law House Bill 561, which creates section 39.0135, entitled Appointment of an attorney for a dependent child with certain special needs, for:

  1. children who reside in or are being considered for placement in a skilled nursing home,
  2. children who have been prescribed a psychotropic medication and do not assent to take it,
  3. children with a diagnosis of developmental disability (autism, intellectual disability, spina bifida, Prader Willi Syndrome, Down Syndrome, or cerebral palsy),
  4. children who are placed in or who are being considered for placement in residential treatment centers, and
  5. children who are victims of human trafficking.

The passage of the law is, by itself, spectacular. It had the public support of the Department of Children and Families, the Guardian ad Litem Program, and the existing pro bono children’s bar. It passed both chambers unanimously. And its implementation thus far has energized and mobilized the children’s bar to prepre to welcome and support new attorneys who will come into the practice starting July 1.

What is even more important, however, is that the law does not limit an attorney’s representation solely to the chapter 39 dependency proceedings. Instead, the attorney is to provide a “complete range of legal services” for the duration of the case, which has been interpreted by everyone I’ve talked to to mean full holistic representation. Therefore, an attorney with a client diagnosed with a developmental disability would be responsible for seeking services for that child from APD through administrative appeals and beyond. An attorney with a client in a skilled nursing home could challenge the lack of available alternatives under Olmstead. An attorney with a human trafficking client involving pornography could bring a restitution claim, or could seek civil action against organized crime involved in the child’s exploitation. If the client is being considered for a residential treatment center, the attorney might not only challenge the placement but hold the facility accountable to the myriad of state and federal regulations involving treatment of children in RTCs. In a typical dependency case, the lack of available substance abuse programs would be a class action, not a continuance.

Child representation in Florida just got real.

Inviting lawyers to work in child welfare may sound like a tough sell. But, I can imagine a child welfare system that is a hub for positive legal and social change, where innovative, justice-minded attorneys come together with families, social workers, and community members to disrupt and mend the public and private institutions that have abused, abandoned, and neglected the weakest children and families in our state. In that world we would expend less effort sorting families into permanency goals or keeping track of federal compliance measures, and instead focus our energies on punching out towards the things that are dragging family after family into our courts. Any Florida attorney who is interested in joining that fight, apply within.

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