Liberty and the pursuit of happiness aren’t the only rights you have in this country. You’re also entitled to an attorney. But that’s something disabled children didn’t have in the state of Florida.
Fortunately, that’s now changing.
According to HB 561, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott on June 25, it is mandatory that dependent children with special needs receive an attorney in court. The $4.5 million allocated by the Florida legislature will go towards paying any lawyer who agrees to represent these clients, making legal services available for these children. (Attorneys, though, can provide their services pro bono if they choose.)
Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) will use certain criteria to determine eligibility. In order to be considered, the child must fall into one of the following categories: reside in a nursing home, have a developmental disability, be a human trafficking victim, or be an unwanted recipient of prescribed psychiatric drugs.
This new law is desperately needed considering Florida’s track record with children with special needs. An investigation conducted by the Miami Herald revealed that since 2008, the DCF knew of 500 children that had died of abuse or neglect. Of those victims, 85 percent were disabled. And the news gets even worse from there. Disabled children in the state are 17 times more likely to die from abuse or neglect than those without limitations.
One such death was Tamiyah Audain, an autistic girl who was diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis. After her mother passed away, the child went to live with her cousin. In 2013, she was found dead in the relative’s apartment — her death due to neglect and abuse.
Since cases such as these are so common in the Sunshine State, hopefully this law is a step in the right direction. Everyone has the right to an attorney, and in the case of disabled children, this legal representation is even more necessary.