Lawmakers say kids removed from their parents deserve a voice in court
When kids are in the foster care system, it can sometimes feel like major decisions about their lives are happening without consideration for their input. Lawmakers are looking into a plan to change that, by appointing lawyers to represent the children in many of those cases. But some are worried about what that change could mean for the Guardian ad Litem program.
“We want to make sure that children have a voice,” says Sen. Lauren Book (D-Plantation) “The only way to ensure that a child has a voice, and that voice is being heard in a court of law is having an attorney speak for that child.”
Book has a measure that makes changes to the current Guardian ad Litem program and would create an Office of Child Representation to provide lawyers who will represent children in certain situations during dependency hearings.
“The current system is not ensuring that all children have any type of legal support,” says child law and education policy expert Cheryl Sattler. “By law, the parents, the Department of Children and Families—everyone has a lawyer except the person who most needs one, the person who is most at risk.”
Sattler says having a lawyer specifically to represent them, can reduce the amount of time kids spend in foster care, which she says creates a domino effect of other positive outcomes. For example, they’re more likely to excel in school and avoid the criminal justice system.
Angela Vigil agrees. She is a full-time pro bono lawyer. She represents children and trains other lawyers on best practices for representing kids. She says many of the children she represents are teens with strong opinions on how their lives should move forward and she says it’s her job to hear that and provide guidance.
“When a young person involved in the child welfare system, like so many of my young clients, thinks they know best where they need to be, who they need to be with, where their siblings are and whether they can be reunited with them, whether or not they can exercise their own religion and their own opinions, they deserve to have that represented to a court.”
And Vigil says making sure that opinion is heard empowers that child. But she says there’s also a system in place to balance that.
“If you are in court and you are arguing for something that 15-year-old thinks is the right outcome and the other professionals in the courtroom, maybe the Guardian ad Litem, maybe the caseworker, don’t think is in their best interest, everyone will be heard and the judge will make a decision,” Vigil says. “And that is not an easy job. And I’d rather be a judge than a lawyer, but that’s the point. When you have a plumbing problem you need an expert plumber. If you’re in a courtroom, you need an expert lawyer,” Vigil says
But some members of the Guardian ad Litem program are concerned. A Guardian ad Litem is typically appointed to represent the best interests of a child while issues of guardianship are considered. An attorney would represent the voice and desires of the child.
“These children are really important to me. I know that they’re important to this program. It saddens me to think that some of these children, if this bill is passed, will not have a Guardian ad Litem from the beginning,” says Guardian ad Litem volunteer Lori Bergstrom
Bergstrom says she serves as an important resource to make sure kids are getting what they need.
“I not only advocate for what they want. I speak to their teachers. I go to their schools. I talk to their parents. We also advocate for their medical needs, dental needs,” Bergstrom says.
Book says her bill will not end the Guardian ad Litem program. But under the current language of the bill, a Guardian ad Litem could be optional if a lawyer is appointed. Book says she’s willing to look into that language to ensure kids have the representation they needed.