by Nancy Kinnally
ORLANDO — The Family Law Section of The Florida Bar today announced a $75,000 charitable gift to The Florida Bar Foundation to support Children’s Legal Services grants to Florida’s local legal aid organizations.
The gift is in response to the impending loss of legal aid attorney positions throughout Florida and the potential impact on the availability of legal services for low-income children such as foster children and those in need of access to medical, mental health and special education services.
“ A core mission of the Family Law Section is to be at the forefront of efforts to protect children’s rights,” said attorney David Manz, chair of the Family Law Section. “It is the essence of who we are as a Section. We are proud to be able to provide this contribution to the Foundation’s Children’s Legal Services Grant Program as a way to effectuate our mission.”
For 20 years, the Foundation has provided special annual grants to Florida legal aid organizations to fund legal services for children. Approximately 25 children’s advocates currently working at legal aid organizations around Florida have been supported by these grants. Without additional resources, the jobs of 10 or more of those attorneys are at risk in the next three years due to the recent sharp decline in revenue from Florida’s Interest on Trust Accounts (IOTA) program, the chief funding source for The Florida Bar Foundation. IOTA revenue has fallen 88 percent since 2008.
The $2.8 million the Foundation distributed to 23 legal aid programs through its Children’s Legal Services Grant Program in 2010 was cut by 21 percent in 2011. The Foundation used funds from its reserve to prevent even deeper cuts, but with the reserve fund expected to run out in 2014, the Foundation expects to have to cut total children’s legal services grant funding to $1.25 million by 2013. This would represent further cuts to the program of 55 percent over three years, resulting in an approximate 54 percent drop in the number of cases handled for children which is more than 1,000 fewer cases than were handled in 2010.
The numbers are beginning to look a little better, though, thanks to recent large gifts from Florida Bar sections.The Trial Lawyers Section of The Florida Bar announced its $75,000 charitable donation in support of children’s legal services in January. The donations from the Family Law and Trial Lawyers sections will effectively prevent the loss of two full-time attorneys serving needy, low-income children. The Foundation is hoping other sections will follow with similar charitable gifts.
“The Florida Bar Foundation is thrilled to see this tremendous support from the Family Law Section and the Trial Lawyers Section,” said Michele Kane Cummings, president of The Florida Bar Foundation and a member of the Family Law Section. “How far we are willing to go to protect and uphold the legal rights of children says a lot about who we are as a profession. The support these two groups have shown in the midst of this legal aid funding crisis speaks volumes about what lawyers truly stand for. We are so very grateful,” Manz said the decision to make the gift was an easy one for the Family Law Section.
“We should always be the defender of children, the impoverished, the disenfranchised, and the disadvantaged,” he said. “Beyond the legal education, legislation, legal publications, and all the other great things we do, we should, and do, stand for being the protector of children and assuring that their rights to legal representation in foster care, juvenile, guardianship, and other proceedings are not compromised.”