Florida’s 27,000 child victims of abuse, abandonment and neglect do not get the equal protection of a lawyer — and that’s unfair. The state Constitution has protections for crime victims, but is silent about the need for children who have been removed from their families, siblings, schools and friends. That is why we support Proposal 40 pending before the Constitution Revision Commission.
Every year nearly 30,000 children are placed in state custody because their parents abused or neglected them. If they were an adult with a mental health problem or a child charged with a delinquent act and placed in state custody, they would get a lawyer. However, often times these children in foster care do not get a lawyer to protect their rights.
The child is a party, like the parents and the Department of Children and Families. Yet, the child is the only party without a lawyer. Proposal 40 would fix that.
Forty states currently provide children with lawyers. The national consensus is that children require legal representation in these proceedings. These judicial proceedings are complex and all parties, especially children, need an attorney to protect and advance their interests in court, provide legal counsel and help them understand the process and feel empowered. The confidential attorney client privilege also allows children to feel safe sharing information with attorneys that otherwise may go unvoiced.
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The Constitution Revision Commission will have to make difficult decisions about what issues get priority and should end up on the ballot for the citizens to approve. Children should get priority and the Constitution is an appropriate place to protect children’s rights to their family and their future.
Proposal 40 would also save the state money and critical time in care. For more than 10 years, the citizens of Palm Beach have made this investment in their children. With funds from a County tax, Palm Beach has provided all the children in foster care with a lawyer. A study done by the University of Chicago (hyperlink: http://www.chapinhall.org/sites/default/files/old_reports/428.pdf) showed that children spent 88 days less in foster care when they have lawyers advocating for them. Proposal 40 would allow this to be replicated statewide, providing a way for children to get to their forever families three months quicker. This would also save the state $39 million dollars in direct foster care payments, not counting court and other costs.
Proposal 40 makes sense and is the right thing to do. Florida should commit to protecting children’s rights in our Constitution especially those who are victims of abuse and neglect.
Belinda Keiser has served as Vice Chancellor of Keiser University, Florida's second largest not-for-profit University, for over 30 years. She is currently serving as a gubernatorial appointee to Florida's 2017-2018 Constitution Revision Commission.
Gerry Glynn is the Chief Legal Officer of Community Based Care of Central Florida and is the past President of the National Association of Counsel for Children. He represented children for more than 20 years while a full-time professor of law.