Florida is one of 14 states that doesn't guarantee foster children a lawyer during legal proceedings — putting the costs of retaining a lawyer on the shoulders of kids or their foster families.
To bridge that gap, the Legal Aid of Manasota launched "Legal Lifeline for Youth" in 2019, a program for foster kids in the 12th Judicial Circuit, which includes Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. The initiative pairs an attorney with a foster child to represent them during dependency court proceedings, facilitate conflict resolution, and coordinate placement plans.
More than 75 children have been assisted so far — at no cost — with the program also assisting other local foster children in attaining their driver's license or finding mental health support.
That means about 5% of over 1,400 foster care children in the 12th Judicial Circuit are relieved by the strain of finding and affording, an attorney.
Linda Harradine, the executive director of Legal Aid of Manasota, said an attorney getting involved early on during a dependency petition can change the entire course of a child's life.
“For many foster children, the goal is simply to live a normal life. However, the system can work against them,” she said. “That’s why it’s important to have advocates in their corner who will fight for their interests.”
The Charles & Margery Foundation awarded a $540,000 grant to the nonprofit to kickstart its program, working closing with representatives in Dependency Court, Independent Living Court, Guardian Ad Litem Program, Department of Children and Families, and the Safe Children Coalition to identify areas of need, establish referral procedures and field questions.
Legal Aid plans to expand its foster care work by working to prevent home removals when appropriate. Foster court statistics from September 2020 show that within one year, 645 kids were placed into the foster care system in Sarasota, Manatee, and Desoto counties.
"The organization believes it can help prevent traumatic and unnecessary removals, protect due process rights of the parents and children, and keep families intact," the foundation said in a statement.
The nonprofit has also taken a step to screen every child for mental health issues at the onset of their work. Recent findings show high rates of untreated trauma, undiagnosed low-cognitive functioning, and fetal exposure to substances.
Stefania Lugli covers a little of everything for the Herald-Tribune. You can contact her at email@example.com or dm her on Twitter at @steflugli.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Manatee, Sarasota county nonprofit pays for foster kids' attorneys