All Florida’s Abused Kids Deserve Lawyers

February 28, 2010

By Michael J. Dale and Louis M. Reidenberg  |  Sun Sentinel  —  

It is truly a sad day for Florida’s abused and neglected children. Unlike children in 38 states, Florida’s children have no right to a free lawyer to represent them in abuse and neglect cases, even though by law, they are parties to the case. A bill, developed by the Florida Bar and pending in the Legislature, makes a feeble effort to provide some lawyers for some children sometimes. Florida law should be changed so that each and every child is appointed a lawyer at the beginning of the case.

The Bar’s arguments are unsupported by the facts and run counter to what has been the best and most thorough thinking in the nation about the issue for decades. The first major study of the role of lawyers representing children in abuse and neglect cases was conducted by the prestigious Chapin Hall Center in 2008. The study examined the Foster Children’s Project of Palm Beach County. The study found that the Palm Beach County lawyers, by being appointed at the beginning of the case, achieved permanent living situations for the children they represented in less than half the time than without their representation for the most part.

The Bar bill, supported by Florida Children’s First, fails its mission. The bill suggests that children need both lawyers and guardians ad litem, despite the fact that it would appear that the Legislature cannot fund both programs, and that those supporting the bill know that.

The most misleading argument of the proponents of the bill is that children who have been in care for an extended time should be represented by lawyers rather than being represented when they first come into care. They point to the Chapin Hall Study as support. The study actually supports a very different proposition — that lawyers who represent children when they first come into foster care significantly cut the children’s time in care.

Finally, the bill states unequivocally that children in care for an extended period are a “critical category.” One would think that the critical categories would include children at the time they first come into care.

It is indeed a sad day for Florida’s abused and neglected children. They don’t need a “good start,” as the Bar bill proponents argue. They need a lawyer, not a guardian ad litem. And they need a lawyer now.

Michael J. Dale is a law professor at Nova Southeastern University. Louis Reidenberg is a lawyer and former co-chair of the Advisory Board of Florida Children’s First.