(HealthNewsDigest.com) - TALLAHASSEE, Fla., June 25, 2014 -- Today, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed into law a measure that will provide attorneys to protect dependent children with special needs who are in the legal custody of the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF)--Florida's most vulnerable. The Florida Legislature also appropriated $4.5 million to fund attorneys to represent these at-risk children, most of whom linger in foster care --often for an average of up to five years. The bills were sponsored by Senator Bill Galvano (Bradenton) and Representative Erik Fresen (Miami).
"We applaud Gov. Scott for supporting this historic legislation that provides disabled children a lawyer when they come into Florida's child protection system. These children need all the additional protections they can get," said Howard Talenfeld, President of Florida's Children First, the statewide organization that has fought for this legislation since the report was issued. "Since 2002, The Florida Bar Commission On The Legal Needs of Children recognized the critical necessity to appoint attorneys for vulnerable, abused and neglected children in the custody of the state. This is truly a historic day."
Recently, the Miami Herald conducted a special investigation regarding 477 children in Florida who have died from abuse and neglect, including many children with special needs. One such child, Tamiya Audain, a 12-year-old Broward girl who had autism and a rare medical disease, starved to death in September 2013 as a result of neglect in the home of a relative with whom she was placed after her mother died - http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/10/08/3678478/state-records-show-pattern-of.html.
"Like so many other special needs children in state custody, she did not have the critical services and support that would have kept her alive had an attorney been appointed to represent her," said Christina Spudeas, Executive Director of Florida's Children First.
"Because children are the only parties in dependency cases that do not have their own counsel, Gov. Scott and The Florida Legislature have delivered on our obligation to Florida's most vulnerable children to provide them counsel to ensure that they are safe and obtain the critical services that they need," said Sen. Galvano.
The law provides attorneys for dependent children who have a number of special needs including developmental disabilities, (as defined in s. 393.063), medical disabilities for children who reside in or are being placed in a skilled nursing facility, psychiatric disabilities for children who reside or are being placed or considered for placement in a residential treatment center or who been prescribed psychotropic medications and refuse to take them, and for children who are victims of human trafficking.
Under the new law, funding will be provided for an attorney skilled in both administrative and in juvenile court proceedings to provide necessary legal representation to these disabled children. Such agencies include the Florida Agency for Persons with Disabilities, the Agency for Health Care Administration, the Social Security Administration in applications and denials for benefits from the state and federal agencies and their school districts. Without appropriate representation, disabled children spend many years in the custody of the state of Florida instead of with families who would care for them.
"These children often cannot speak for themselves, and if they can, they find themselves in courtrooms or complex administrative hearings without any representation," said Rep. Fresen. "We wouldn't send a criminal defendant into such a situation without counsel. It's time we provide the same legal support and representation for the state's most vulnerable and innocent citizens when their lives are at stake."
"The GAL's 'best interest' attorneys, staff and volunteers, working with attorneys created by this new legislation on these complex cases, will be a formidable advocacy team to get children permanency," said Alan Abramowitz, Executive Director of Florida's Statewide Guardian ad Litem Program. "The addition of these skilled attorneys to advocate for their disability benefits, educational services and a permanent family is a giant step forward in improving our state's child protection system," said Abramowitz, who advocated for the critical legislation.
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