As a foster parent for the last 11 years, I have seen first-hand many ways in which our well-intentioned system further traumatizes the children it is mandated to help. Sibling separation, placement changes without transition, services ordered but not provided, parents reunited without the support they need to help them keep their children safe and well at home are just a few examples.
Sadly, the failures of the system can be as harmful to children as the risks at home from which they are ostensibly being sheltered. Cases need to be monitored from multiple perspectives to ensure that the needs of the children remain the primary concern.
Child welfare is a complex system. Every stage is governed by law, policy and procedures, with critical decisions made by judges. As the people who provide for the daily physical and emotional needs of children in our home, my wife and I see how court decisions affect children. As a foster parent, I do not have automatic or direct access to the court, and can provide input only when the judge allows and if the state’s or parents’ attorneys don’t object. As an experienced foster parent, I try very hard, but it is extremely difficult for me to advocate for a child’s legal needs when they have no representation.
Federal and Florida law dictate that each child must have representation in dependency court. Florida created the Guardian Ad Litem Office to meet that requirement. But it has never represented all the children. Today, one-third of foster children do not have representation in their court case. Some, including children in my care, have representation for just part of their time in state care.
I make a point to lobby for representation for children in my care when they do not have it, but those efforts depend on my articulating why they should be prioritized over other children for something that the law requires for all children. This is ultimately a failure of our country’s promise of equal justice. Senate Bill 1920 aims to fix that failure by ensuring all foster children are represented throughout their case.
Senate Bill 1920 provides that children 10 and older will be appointed an attorney and children under 10 a guardian ad litem. Children who enter care before 10 may also choose to maintain their relationship with their guardian ad litem. With passage of this bill, all children will finally have representation as a matter of course from the outset of their cases.
It is unfathomable how Florida has permitted a state agency to fail at its core function for so long. The Guardian Ad Litem Office has received a 500 percent increase in funding over the last 15 years — receiving over $600 million — yet it has consistently failed to represent a third of the children it is required to serve. My personal experience bears out these statistics. When a child arrives in our home, one of the first questions we ask is if the child has had a guardian ad litem assigned. Quite often they do not, and we begin the effort to get one.
A recent Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) report made it clear that giving the Guardian Ad Litem Office more money, more staff and more volunteers does not result in their serving more children. To the contrary, despite a significant infusion of resources, the Guardian Ad Litem Office serves fewer children today than in years past.
Guardian Ad Litem volunteers are wonderful, well-intentioned people; many who have served our children have been fierce advocates and remain present in our children’s lives after their cases are resolved. But Florida’s decades of experience shows that a volunteer-driven system is incapable of achieving even 70 percent representation.
It is time for a new approach to ensure that Florida’s foster children get the legal assistance that they need and are entitled to. SB 1920 will help close the chronic gaps in advocacy that are a harmful and persistent feature of the current system.
Christopher Fellerhoff is a transportation planner in Tampa and a longtime foster parent in Hillsborough County.