by Gabrielle Davis
Former foster youth Ashtavia Maddox gave a powerful charge to 45 children’s legal services attorneys gathered September 15-16 in Orlando.
“Stay empowered,” she said, urging the group to continue to help ensure the legal rights of thousands of low-income and foster children in Florida.
The 20-year-old, who grew up in Florida’s foster-care system and is now a foster-youth advocate, said without her legal aid attorney she doesn’t know where she would be.
“It’s important that we have you guys,” Maddox said. “My attorney worked around the clock for me.”
For the sake of children like Maddox, advocates from more than 20 legal aid organizations convened for the 2011 Children’s Legal Services Conference, sponsored by The Florida Bar Foundation.
Presentations and panel discussions covered topics ranging from children’s health care and developmental disability rights to juvenile justice reform.
Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente, the keynote speaker, called on children’s advocates to be change agents.
“Think of your individual clients, but also think of the big picture,” Pariente said. “Every child needs their voice to be heard.”
And it’s that “big picture” mindset that the conference teaches attorneys to have, said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First.
“By being here, attorneys feel like they have a connection to the broader legal community, and they have the power to harness that to make systemic change,” said Rosenberg, also a co-organizer of the conference.
“One of our goals is to really broaden people’s minds so they’ll say if this is happening to my client then it’s certainly happening to a bunch of other kids. How do we fix it for everybody?”
A workshop on the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) educated attorneys on how they can dispute government agencies when they improperly deny their clients’ benefits; and ultimately create a better outcome.
The APA requires government agencies to create a rule, rather than a policy, to determine who receives benefits, and the rule must be promulgated so that it can be challenged, said Gabriela Ruiz, attorney with the Southern Legal Counsel.
“If the agency just makes up a policy and they don’t put it into a rule, they have not complied with the Administrative Procedure Act and you can take them to an administrative court,” Ruiz said.
The attorney can then help create a better rule that will benefit children’s rights, Ruiz said.
The Florida Bar Foundation distributed $2.8 million through its Children’s Legal Services Grant Program in 2010 to many of the programs represented at the meeting, but had to cut those grants by 20 percent in 2011 due to declining revenue from Florida’s Interest on Trust Accounts (IOTA) Program.
With IOTA revenue expected to remain stagnant into 2013 and 2014 possibly longer due to low interest rates, another round of cuts of 20 percent or more is expected in 2012, which will endanger the jobs of up to 10 of these children’s legal services attorneys.