The fates of abused, abandoned and neglected children were at the center of a discussion organized recently by Miami Law's Children and Youth Law Clinic.
The panel, titled "The Future of Child Advocacy and Representation: The Next 5, 10, and 20 Years for Florida's Children," was held as part of Miami Law's Philanthropy Week, a celebration of pro bono and volunteer service to underserved communities. The event offered CLE credit to local attorneys in the audience.
Moderated by Robert Latham, a lecturer and practitioner in residence at the Children and Youth Law Clinic, the discussion centered on the past, present, and future services provided to such children. The panelists included Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the statewide Guardian ad Litem office; Mary Cagle, statewide director of Children's Legal Services for the Florida Department of Children and Families; and Professor Bernard Perlmutter, director of the Children and Youth Law Clinic.
Asked whether the child welfare system is getting better or worse, Cagle said: "It's easy to read the paper and think things are getting worse. Only the cases that go awry hit the paper. But there's been improvement in the system that serves these children and families over the last couple of years."
Cagle cited privatization as one of the reasons the Department of Children and Families has seen a welcome reduction in the number of children seeking services. "This leaves much more room in the system," he said, "for case managers, lawyers and investigators to address things like trauma, educational issues, mental health, dental problems – all those things that may be ignored under a heavier case load."
The theme of the "whole child" was present throughout the discussion. "I always saw child advocacy as serving the whole child, not just the child in the Chapter 39 proceeding," Professor Perlmutter said, referring to the Florida statute that defines child abuse. "We developed a training manual in 1990, a multi-forum advocacy book for children. Ringing true to that philosophy of the whole child as the client, the idea has always been to use the raw talent of our wonderful students, train them in this complex body of law and marshal that law on behalf of our clients in many different ways."
The Guardian ad Litem system addresses the whole child by providing a strong voice in court for children in the welfare system and by working to push systemic change, Abramowitz said. "The history of the Guardian ad Litem program goes back 30 or so years," he went on. "It was a grassroots effort by judges and, in fact, Florida judges led the charge."
When asked if the program has gotten better over the years, Abramowitz described how the focus has shifted from the safety of the guardian's representing the child to ensuring the safe and stable outcome for the child as he or she is taken through a system that can be traumatic.
"There were trainings in the past that said if you protect yourself, you protect the child," Abramowitz said. "So you saw removal of kids that never should have been removed, for things like marijuana. The Guardian ad Litem program in particular has become well aware of the outcome of foster kids. Being removed from parents is a traumatic experience. Foster care is no place to raise a child. We've now identified the kids that don't get out of the system and now we have to make a special effort to help them."
Brittany Young, a third-year law student and a Children and Youth Law Clinic fellow, organized the event for the Miami Law community out of a desire, she said, to "connect our Philanthropy Week fundraising efforts with the fact that we are in law school."
"Having a CLE that focused on children," Young said, "was a key part of the effort to educate about the issues facing children in our legal system and how we, as future lawyers, can help change the legal landscape for the most vulnerable of our society."