After living through the foster care system as a child, Dustin Vega stood before Florida senators to give his opinion on a recently filed bill that could change how children are represented in court. His purpose was to speak for his friends who couldn’t make it to the age of 30.
“To give a child a voice is to give them hope, to give them courage for the future,” said Vega.
The bill, filed by Florida Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, will create a Statewide Office of Child Representation that will provide state-appointed attorneys to children involved in dependency proceedings.
“The only way to make sure that a child has a voice and that voice is being heard in a court of law is having an attorney speak for that child,” said Book during a Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee meeting on the bill.
A similar bill was proposed by state Rep. Randy Maggard, R-Dade City. The House version of the bill is currently in the House Children, Families & Seniors Subcommittee.
Current Florida law places the responsibility of recommending legal counsel on behalf of a child to the Statewide Guardian Ad Litem Office. The role of a Guardian Ad Litem is to represent the best interests of the child in the midst of court proceedings.
During the Senate’s committee meeting on the bill, Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, and a Guardian Ad Litem volunteer addressed the topic of attorney-client privilege.
“The attorney has to represent what the child wants, and I’ve had cases where what the child wanted was not in the client’s best interest,” said one Guardian Ad Litem volunteer.
The concern was addressed with the assurance that a judge would resolve any conflict between the attorney representing the child and the attorney representing the Guardian Ad Litem program.
The bills highlight the potential importance of having a trained attorney represent a child in a situation where they are impacted the most by the court’s decision. However, Book assured those who are concerned about Guardian Ad Litem’s future that the program is still here to stay.
“I want to be very clear: Guardian Ad Litem is going nowhere,” emphasized Book during the committee hearing.
Professor Robert Latham, associate director of the Children & Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law and a former senior attorney at the Guardian Ad Litem office, believes that the bills will be beneficial for the program.
A recent report shows that the Guardian Ad Litem program has served about 67-68% of children in dependency. Latham hopes that the bill will narrow that gap.
“The feelings of the kid and their position matters, and it is far more valuable for a judge to hear. The judge should listen to what the child has to say,” Latham told the Florida Political Review.
Book and Maggard’s bills are part of a broad national trend concerning children’s rights in court. Indiana and Colorado lawmakers have also filed bills that would require state-appointed attorneys to represent children in abuse and neglect cases.
Additionally, the bills follow decades of research on how to address the need for more child representation in Florida. A Florida Bar report concerning the legal needs of children endorsed the creation of a statewide office.
After some debate, Book’s bill was unanimously approved by the Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee and is now in the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice.
Check out other recent articles from Florida Political Review here.
Featured Image: The Old Polk County Courthouse in Bartow, Florida. Unmodified photo by Ebyabe used under a Creative Commons license. (https://bit.ly/3GoZkwi)