Children removed from their parents due to alleged abuse or neglect would have the right to have a lawyer under a measure before the Florida Constitution Revision Commission. Some worry that could do more harm than good.
Destin Vega, 23, dealt with abuse in group homes and didn’t live with his parents before he received an attorney to represent him in court. Vega says having an attorney is a part of his success story.
“I wasn’t able to voice any of these in the court room at my young age at the time," Vega says. "I didn’t have an attorney. I always stayed in these foster homes the whole time having to deal with it myself and growing up losing all sense of hope and ambitions in the world thinking that I was trash because of the state. When I was finally appointed an attorney all of that changed in an instant.”
As a kid Vega was represented by volunteer Guardian Ad Litem. “But when I went to court occasionally, it would change, I never really met them. They didn’t really speak to me. They would just show up in the courtroom at a time and say this is your Guardian Ad Litem, I would say ‘cool’ and then court proceedings would follow and then I would go home.”
Jacksonville supervising attorney for the guardian program Christine Myer says Guardian Ad Litem has a multidisciplinary team that speaks with anyone connected to the children to do what is in the best interest for them.
“I’m here today simply to put a face to what Proposal 40 has made invisible. And that is the 170 plus Guardian Ad Litem program attorneys who are in courtrooms everyday across the state, zealously advocating for abused, neglected and abandoned children. Our mission is one thing and one thing only, and that is to represent the best interest of children to whom the court has appointed us.”
At issue is a debate over how such kids should be represented. Myer says the volunteer Ad Litem looks at all the documents for the child and acts as a friend, a mentor and an advocate.
Both sides say they want to protect kids. Supporters for private attorneys say they’re needed to give kids a say in their future. Opponents like Guardian ad Litem worry about cost—and whether if what the child wants is in their best interest since most kids in dependency court are under 10 years old.