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Terry Thomas: Having children direct their own attorneys could put them in harm’s way

I’m writing to voice my opposition to a measure now before the Constitutional Revision Commission: To amend the state constitution to establish the right of all abused, neglected and abandoned children to their own attorneys in dependency court.

After more than 40 years in law enforcement — including 26 as the statewide coordinator of FDLE’s Crimes Against Children Program — I’ve seen too many cases where children and adolescents had their own attorneys, with the result that the dependency court could not adequately protect the child.

And so I see great potential for this measure to harm children, not help them.

Why? Because the truth is that children love their parents, and the vast majority of my child victims — no matter how badly they’d been abused — wanted to go home even if it placed them in danger. I’ve had kids say to me, ‘I love my dad. I just wish he’d stop doing what he’s doing.”

And so when you put an attorney in the midst of this, it’s not in the best interests of kids as far as I’m concerned. When the kids do go home or somewhere else they’re at risk, they often instruct the attorney not to tell the judge. I’ve dealt with attorneys who actually hid kids’ whereabouts while they were in touch with the abusive parents and having them change their stories.

And I know dependency judges who have had the same experience many times.

The truth is that abused children already have access to attorneys. For one thing, the dependency judge can appoint them. For another, the Legislature approved a measure in 2014 to have children with special needs represented by attorneys on a registry; a bill that would incentivize more attorneys to do this pro bono is before the Legislature now.

Above all, the Guardian ad Litem model we already have in Florida law provides children with a three-person team that includes a Best Interest Attorney; a GAL volunteer who advocates for the child in court, school, medical settings and more; and a case advocate manager who knows local resources and helps the volunteer gain access to services for the children.

In short, the Guardian ad Litem Program acts as the judge’s eyes and ears, providing all the information they believe the judge needs to make decisions that are in the child’s best interest.

I have investigated too many child homicides to allow dependent children to take still more risks. Vote NO on Proposal 40, and let the courts do their jobs.

___

Terry Thomas is a retired special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

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