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Championing Children: How Involved Should They Be in Their Own Hearings?

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A panel discussion of the role children should play in their own cases before Family Court Judges will be the subject of a panel discussion on Wednesday, Nov. 14, at Miami Law.

The expert panelists will be Judge Ellen Sue Venzer, who teaches a course at the law school on Children and the Law and is a former Dependency Court judge; Marissa Leichter, a guardian ad litem attorney in Miami for eight years; and Professor Bernard P. Perlmutter, Director of Miami Law's Children and Youth Law Clinic. The panel, at 12:30 p.m. in room F209, will debate the desired level of child participation in juvenile proceedings through balancing the best interest of the child and administrative needs of the court. Panelists will discuss when and how children's wishes should be considered and the parallels between participation and rights in delinquency and dependency.

HOPE Fellows Meghan Paraschak and Erin Lewis put together the panel as part of the "paying it forward" component of their fellowships. Fellows are required to bring the experiences back to campus by engaging their peers in dialogue and by facilitating opportunities for them to get involved.

"Children subject to abuse and neglect hearings have already endured so much trauma," Paraschak said. "The last thing they need is to be re-victimized by a system that refuses to empower them. These children may be young, but they experiences should be validated and their desires zealously advocated for. The argument so often is that those desires are ill advised or misguided, but that argument misses the point. The benefit of the representation is not to ensure the child is granted every outlandish request they make, but rather that they have their position heard by the judge in the same way the parents and the state do. This ensures, first, that the child invests in the judge's decision, as she feels her position was considered, and second, that the judge can make the most informed decision.

"By promoting proactive engagement in an area of my choice, with meaningful self-reflection, the HOPE Fellows program allowed me to explore, not just the kind of law I want to pursue, but my motivations for doing so. By identifying my underlying motives, I am now able to recognize opportunities outside of this specific work that I identify and connect with, ultimately broadening and enriching my experience, as well as my understanding of the law as a tool for effecting change," Paraschak said.

Professor Perlmutter said the topic is timely. "Florida and other states are giving children, particularly in dependency – or abuse and neglect – proceedings, more opportunities to appear and participate in the court hearings that decide life-altering questions about their circumstances and well-being, including whether to allow them to return to their parents or be freed for adoption," Professor Perlmutter said. "Historically, children have not been seen or heard in these hearings, but the trend is to afford them greater opportunities to speak to the judge at the many hearings where their fates are deliberated, discussed and decided.

"Florida has recently adopted a new rule of juvenile procedure that expands their participatory rights in significant ways," Professor Perlmutter went on. "The Children and Youth Law Clinic submitted an amicus brief to the Florida Supreme Court laying reasons for the expansion of their rights to be heard in these proceedings. There are some detractors who argue that mandating children's participation in these hearings in contrary to the best interests because they may miss school or be forced to face abusive parents in the courtroom. I anticipate that we'll have a lively discussion about the benefits – and detriments – of allowing children to be involved in their own hearings."

"Child participation in their own juvenile proceedings has been increasing in recent years," said Lewis. "It is so important for stakeholders to thoughtfully discuss how the system can be improved by child participation without causing additional trauma to the children involved."

The HOPE Fellows Program allows public interest-minded students to create summer dream jobs and work across the globe to effectuate change. The HOPE Public Interest Resource Center provides stipends to law students who work in uncompensated public interest jobs during the summer. HOPE Fellows work with local, national, and international public interest agencies and non-governmental organizations of their choosing.

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