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Florida flunks child welfare report by national group

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Lukes Dad's picture
on Sun, 05/13/2012 - 07:29

A national report on how well states protect the legal rights of abused and neglected children has bad news for Florida: It's flunking.

"In the U.S., the right to counsel is guaranteed to everyone accused of breaking the law — including parents and other caregivers accused of child abuse and neglect," said Elissa T. Garr, executive director of First Star, a national organization working to improve the lives of children and co-author of the report. "Yet the abused and neglected children in these cases, who are the least able to advocate for themselves, are not guaranteed counsel."

The report, "A Child's Right to Counsel," cites data that children who have adequate legal representation are placed in permanent homes more quickly — sparing them additional distress and uncertainty while saving tax dollars associated with repeated out-of-home placements.

"The system designed to rescue these children often further victimizes them and can set them up for a very hard life," said Peter Samuelson, president of First Star.

Kids aging out of the foster-care system are more likely to be high-school dropouts, impoverished, imprisoned or homeless.

Florida was one of 10 states to earn an "F", while 15 others earned A's.

But Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program — which represents children in 87 percent of the state's dependency cases — said the report measures a model that Florida doesn't follow. Instead, it has opted for a volunteer-based program with attorney oversight, using attorneys themselves only for complex cases.

"If you only have attorneys, they're often very court-focused," he said. "Our volunteers develop a real relationship with the child… We just need more volunteers."

As it is, the state has close to 8,000, but needs about 10,000, Abramowitz said.

ksantich@tribune.com or 407-420-5503

By Kate Santich, Orlando Sentinel