Op-Ed

Let’s be clear: Children in Florida’s dependency court already have attorneys

TNS

We know the public has a heart for abused, abandoned and neglected children. In our work, we’ve met thousands of Floridians who fostered children, adopted them, mentored them and represented their best interests as Guardian ad Litem volunteers.

That’s why we’re asking the public to carefully consider a proposal now before the Constitutional Revision Commission that would amend the state Constitution to establish the right of every child in dependency court to an attorney.

The public believes that abused children do not have attorneys. But that’s not the case at all.

CRC Proposal 40 sounds as if it would help vulnerable children who have no legal representation. But in fact those children do have attorneys — Guardian ad Litem (GAL) attorneys appointed by a judge to represent their best interests. Guardian ad Litem attorneys work as part of a three-person team with a GAL volunteer who advocates for the child in every setting, including court, and a case advocate manager who knows local resources and helps the volunteers gain access to services for the children. To clarify: Guardian ad Litem volunteers do not practice law. They are laypeople whose job is to learn all they can about the child’s safety, needs and happiness — to be the judge’s eyes and ears. But it’s the GAL attorney who takes the lead and litigates at each stage of a child’s case.

In Miami-Dade, the GAL program has 22 attorneys. They are in court every day, filing motions in the best interests of the children they represent. For instance, when children have been placed on psychotropic medication, GAL attorneys review the orders. If they don’t believe a medication is in a child’s best interests, they file an objection. They also file motions to modify a child’s placement, add needed services or file petitions to terminate a parent’s rights — again, if it is in the child’s best interests. That is their only yardstick.

Additionally, in Miami-Dade, the Guardian ad Litem office has a ground-breaking program, the Criminal Court Project, which started in 1991, representing children who are victims/witnesses in criminal court cases. Unlike dependency court, the criminal court is not child-focused. And in fact, without our CCP Best Interest attorneys, there would be child victims and child witnesses without meaningful representation in criminal court procedures.

I, Cindy Lederman, have been a circuit court judge in Miami-Dade County handling dependency cases for more than 25 years. I want to do what is best for children — something that is often difficult to determine. In my experience, lawyers who simply argue to the court what the child wants, without considering what is best for the child, can cause harm to the child. I have seen it too often.

I had a teenager in my division who was hiding from the court, and his lawyer knew where he was, but refused to tell me because the child did not want me, the judge responsible for his well-being, to know. I have had private attorneys tell their child clients not to engage in needed therapy. My colleagues on the dependency bench almost unanimously agree that lawyers for dependent children must help the court determine what is best for the child, not protect their questionable decisions. That is why the GAL Best Interest attorneys, and the GAL Program as it exists today, are the most invaluable voice in the courtroom.

We both urge Floridians with a heart for children to approach Proposal 40 as thoughtfully as possible. We fear that this ineffective proposal will result in vulnerable children facing the dependency system with only an attorney being directed by his or her client, a child — and not with a specialized team to truly act in their best interests.

Cindy S. Lederman is a Miami-Dade circuit court judge. Susan Somers is managing attorney for the Guardian ad Litem Program. Both serve in the 11th judicial circuit.

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