Friday, May 2, 2014

Florida Bar Foundation: Helping The Youngest Foster Children Find Safety And Permanence

By Hala Sandridge

Three siblings, all age 5 or younger, had to be removed from their home because of their parents’ mental health and domestic violence problems. After spending more than a year under the care of foster parents, the oldest, speaking for the three, said that if they could not be reunited with their parents, they wanted to be adopted by their foster parents.

However, after parental rights were terminated, the community agency contracted by the Department of Children and Families developed a plan to place the children with a single woman in her 60s who had adopted 25 children, one of whom was a half-sibling unknown to the other three.

The children’s Attorney ad Litem from the L. David Shear Children’s Law Center at Bay Area Legal Services recognized that the children were thriving with their foster family, who loved them and wanted to adopt them. She immediately intervened and succeeded in obtaining the placement the children had wanted all along. On the way to their reunification with their foster parents, the oldest said he felt they were going “home.” By the end of that year, the Attorney ad Litem had their adoption finalized, and the children were part of a forever family.

Fortunately, help was available through the L. David Shear Children’s Law Center, which represents children up to age 5 and their older siblings, striving to provide safety and permanence within the statutory time frame.

Recognizing that children have special legal needs, and that those needs were going largely unmet, The Florida Bar Foundation began funding special annual grants for legal assistance to children in the early 1990s. The foundation's priorities for its Children’s Legal Services grants include representation of foster youth and access to special education, medical, developmental, and mental health services that are required under law. Bay Area Legal Services has received $996,108 in Children’s Legal Services grants from the foundation since the program began.

Unfortunately, the devastating impact of low interest rates on revenue from Florida’s Interest on Trust Accounts (IOTA) program has drastically reduced the funds available for all of the foundation’s grant programs, including Children’s Legal Services. Although the L. David Shear Children’s Law Center is doing important and often life-changing work on behalf of children such as the siblings described above, the project was among those that, regrettably, will not receive Children’s Legal Services funding from the foundation for 2014. The foundation will continue to help fund Bay Area Legal Services through general support and salary supplementation grants, as well as law school loan repayment assistance for its staff attorneys.

Beyond the foundation’s funding, the L. David Shear Children’s Law Center has received support from the Hillsborough County Bar Foundation and private donations. We thank all the organizations and individuals who have made the L. David Shear Children’s Law Center a success. With your financial support, the center can continue to provide high-quality legal representation for children in the foster care system.