Lauren Book’s child welfare bill advances in committee
Lauren Book bristles at the newly filed 'heartbeat bill.'. Image via Colin Hackley.

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Children in certain kinds of proceedings would automatically be appointed an attorney under this legislation.

Sen. Lauren Book’s bill that would guarantee an attorney is appointed for children in the state’s care advanced in committee Tuesday — but not before the bill drew heartbreaking testimony both for and against.

The Senate Democratic Leader’s legislation (SB 948) would create the Office of Child Representation to provide an attorney to represent a minor who is involved in abuse or neglect, going through delinquency proceedings, or the subject of parental termination of rights. Republican Rep. Randy Maggard has filed an identical bill (HB 1549) in the House.

Currently, an attorney is appointed to represent a child only if the Statewide Guardian Ad Litem Office recommends it.

Some who came before the Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee wanted to make sure it did not undermine the role of the guardian ad litem.

Eileen Smith, who identified herself as guardian ad litem “24/7,” said she fears the attorney will become just another person on a merry-go-round of paid people in lives of children who already have a revolving cast of characters in their lives.

“In my opinion, this adds yet another underpaid attorney to a room that is already full of underpaid attorneys,” she said. “Every time one of those positions turns over, case knowledge is lost, a relationship with that child is lost and the child has to be learned by a new person coming in.”

But Dustin Vega, who grew up in the dependency system, said he is 30 years old now and appeared at the hearing for all his friends who didn’t make it to 30, or who couldn’t speak for themselves.

“It took a lot for me to get out of a foster care system that was abusive to me, and the only exit I found from a GAL (guardian ad litem) who never paid attention, a courtroom that never heard me, was to steal a car and run away,” he said.

He said that things didn’t start to change until he had an attorney representing him.

“To give a child a voice is to give them hope and courage for the future,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson said he could appreciate the passion on both sides of the debate.

“All the speakers, both pro and con … it’s obvious to me that you care about the child,” Rouson said. “While I’m against the growth in government, it makes sense if it helps a bad situation become better.”

Book said she understood why some had reservations about adding another protector beyond the guardian ad litem.

“I want to be clear that the (Statewide Office of the) Guardian Ad Litem is not going anywhere,” she said. “We want to make sure that children have a guardian ad litem … 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.”

Anne Geggis

Anne Geggis is a South Florida journalist who began her career in Vermont and has worked at the Sun-Sentinel, the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Gainesville Sun covering government issues, health and education. She was a member of the Sun-Sentinel team that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Parkland high school shooting. You can reach her on Twitter @AnneBoca or by emailing [email protected]


4 comments

  • Jeremy Smith

    January 12, 2022 at 7:38 am

    FYI… Eileen Smith is actually Allyne Smith. That is my sister.

  • Richard Wexler

    January 12, 2022 at 9:18 am

    Thank you, Sen. Book, for working to give children a *real* voice in court. Right now, if what a child wants isn’t what the GAL thinks is “best” for the child, then the child is effectively silenced. Having a lawyer fight for what a child wants doesn’t mean s/he necessarily should get it – but that’s what judges are for.

    What Florida calls VGALs other states call CASAs – and the evidence is overwhelming that the CASA model doesn’t work – in fact, it generally worsens outcomes for children. Full details here: https://www.nccprblog.org/2021/10/nccpr-at-kempe-center-conference-case.html And the particularly egregious behavior of the Florida program in trying to kill measures like Sen. Book’s bill is discussed here: https://www.nccprblog.org/search/label/Alan%20Abramowitz

    Sen. Book says: “I want to be clear that the (Statewide Office of the) Guardian Ad Litem is not going anywhere.” That’s too bad. It should go away.

    Richard Wexler
    Executive Director
    National Coalition for Child Protection Reform
    http://www.nccpr.org

  • Charlotte Greenbarg

    January 12, 2022 at 5:13 pm

    I was one of the pilot Guardians ad Litem in Dade County way back when. Too many were using it as a steppingstone to a political career. My original director was dismissed and replaced with one more friendly to those who were looking for political careers. My grandson was inflicted with guardians who were completely clueless. . Until we got the head of child psychiatry at the Mailman Center to help us nothing good happened. Re: this bill, a child should not have to get permission from the GAL in order to have an attorney

  • Lauren

    January 12, 2022 at 7:32 pm

    I am in ca and follow child dependency news I am wondering as I have a child who went through cps foster care abuse and a horribly illegal 6 year case and never had a proper attorney who cared for him I am excited somewhere that for future children that is going to change please I admire the cause and movement is there anyone who I can contact and consult for a litigation purposes I need a lawyer who can practice in ca perhaps specialist in foster rights or cps violations but mostly one educated in civil and ada law since my family is deaf cultured andy husband is deaf numerous times he’s had his ada rights stripped from him and especially when our son was taken but now FINALLY case is over and he won him back 3 times in 6 years I am needing a venue to share my story anyone interested or can help me find an attorney?
    Lauren
    [email protected]
    Momsorganicbohofoodfun/WordPress.com

Comments are closed.


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