Miami Law's Children and Youth Law Clinic was amply represented in a hearing last month before the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.
Under the supervision of Professor Bernard Perlmutter, who is a co-director of the clinic, Seida Wood, J.D. '11, presented an oral argument on behalf of two former foster children whose so-called Road to Independence benefits had been terminated by the Florida Department of Children and Families because they had enrolled in school in another state.
The two brothers, Michael and Joseph Acosta, had been put into foster care as minors because of what state officials said was parental abuse and neglect. The Department of Children and Families later moved the brothers to New Jersey to live with a family member. After the brothers "aged out" of foster care on their 18th birthdays, they received Florida Independent Living funds while they completed their high school and college educations in New Jersey.
Less than a year later, the Department of Children and Families terminated the young men's benefits, claiming that they were no longer Florida residents. The Miami Law's Children and Youth Law Clinic team appealed the terminations, represented the Acostas in a fair hearing, and appealed an adverse ruling to the First DCA. They argued that Florida law allows former foster children to receive Road to Independence benefits while living out-of-state to complete secondary and post-secondary schooling, that the state promised them these benefits and should be barred from terminating them, and that the residence restriction violates the equal protection and right-to-travel clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
The clients' appellate briefs, written by Wood and Brian M. Stewart, who expects to graduate from Miami Law next year, were the subject of intense questioning by the three-judge panel.
Stewart – President of the Society of Bar & Gavel and 11th Circuit Editor at the University of Miami Law Review – said this week that the Acosta brothers, who had remained in Florida's custody until they turned 18, "should be entitled to the same rights and benefits as any other foster children placed in the custody of the state." He said Florida has a duty to provide resources for former foster children who age out of the foster care system, regardless of where they are located.
"This is a very significant case that has the potential to clarify Florida law on domicile for state public benefits, and it could affect former foster children who are disadvantaged by the state policy that prohibits students from getting state benefits while studying in other states," Professor Perlmutter said. "The oral argument was handled masterfully by Seida Wood against two veteran appellate lawyers from the Florida Attorney General's Office. The judges were extremely engaged in the argument, asking tough questions of both sides, and Seida answered their questions with aplomb and confidence."
Wood and Stewart are former members of the Children and Youth Law Clinic, and were accompanied to Tallahassee by Professor Perlmutter. Wood is an associate in the law firm Zumpano Patricios & Winker. Along with Kristina Mills, JD '12, a legal intern in the clinic, Wood represented the Acosta brothers at the fair hearing two years ago and collaborated with Stewart on the appellate briefs.
Mills said the clinic "does such important work." Without it, she went on, "a lot of the issues our clients have with DCF would be overlooked because many of these kids are not equipped to battle these issues on their own." Mills said it had been a pleasure to serve as an advocate for the Acostas' rights and those of other Florida youths "who have received similar treatment."
"There are many former foster care youth who depend on the Road to Independence scholarship to help cover their living expenses, whose benefits are wrongfully terminated by the state," Mills said. "Unfortunately, many of them are unable to have their benefits reinstated because of lack of access to affordable or free legal assistance and a lack of knowledge of the actual laws and policies that govern these benefits. The Children and Youth Law Clinic plays an important role by serving as an advocate for these youth and providing them with the knowledge and empowerment to continue standing up for their rights on their own in the future."
The Children and Youth Law Clinic is a live-client clinic established in 1995 at Miami Law. The clinic represents children in foster care and former foster youth in dependency, health care, mental health, disability, independent living, education, immigration and other general civil legal matters, ensuring that they have a voice in court proceedings.