Pro bono spotlight: Attorneys ad litem are there for kids

Pro bono attorneys gathered at Holland & Knight for an Attorney ad Litem training session.


All children subject to court proceedings should have legal representation.

 While Florida law provides for legal counsel for children subject to court proceedings because the child is accused of committing a crime, children who are subject to court proceedings because of allegations of abuse and neglect are entitled to legal representation in only a limited number of cases.

The Florida Legislature took a big step to remedy this in the most recent legislative session, now requiring representation for children with certain special needs.

Specifically, an attorney must be provided for a dependent child who resides in or is being considered for placement in a skilled nursing home; is prescribed psychotropic medication but objects to taking that medication; has been diagnosed with a developmental disability; is placed in a residential treatment facility or being considered for placement in a residential treatment center; or is a victim of human trafficking.

While this legislation is a big step forward, there are still circumstances where a child will be unrepresented in dependency without volunteer pro bono attorneys willing to act as the child’s attorney.

Pro bono organizations throughout the state have been providing legal representation for children for many years. Locally, through a joint initiative of The Jacksonville Bar Association’s Protecting Our Children Section and Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, an attorney ad litem Judicial Appointment Panel exists.

This panel consists of a group of dedicated attorneys from all areas of practice who accept appointment to represent children in dependency proceedings. These attorneys, who provide legal representation to children with the same duty of undivided loyalty, confidentiality, and zealous representation as would be afforded any adult client, provide the child with a voice in court.

Many of the attorneys who have agreed to accept appointments to represent a child have little or no experience in juvenile law or dependency court. The JBA Legal Needs of Children Committee provides training, mentoring, and support to attorneys willing to assist in this important work. Partnering with Florida’s Children First, a statewide non profit children’s advocacy organization; the local office of Holland & Knight; and Florida Coastal School of Law, training has been made available to more than 50 local attorneys over the past three years.

In addition to providing a platform for video training, JALA offers professional liability coverage to attorneys who would otherwise be unable to accept appointments. Attorneys ad litem are supported with on-going training opportunities, periodic networking lunches, and experienced juvenile attorneys available to mentor and assist them.

Those who do pro bono work would like to be able to report a “happy ending” and there are many such stories.

However, when representing dependent children (often referred to as “foster children”), we more often have “happy moments,” such as when a child who needs a new placement transitions successfully to a new foster home.

Because of the work of an attorney ad litem and/or educational surrogate, a child’s educational needs are met.

A teen mother is able to keep her child. These are the moments we all work for.

Best case? Children who have been removed from their home sare successfully reunited with their parents after appropriate services are offered to make the home safe again.

A child who cannot be returned home finds a permanent place with a new family through adoption.

That’s called permanency and that’s what we are all working for.

By Connie Byrd, The JBA Protecting Our Children Section Chair

If you would like to help build happy moments and happy endings for a child, contact JALA or the JBA for more information through Kathy Para, chair of The JBA Pro Bono Committee,

Original Article

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Alexia Nechayev

FYS Events & Meeting Chair
(Palm Beach)

Hello, My name is Alexia Nechayev. I am 25 years old and I am an alumna of Florida International University where I received my B.A. in Psychology. My future career goal is to be a Lawyer. I was in care for about one year from age 17 to 18. Prior to entering care, I only knew about the negative stigma regarding foster care and while in care that narrative was unfortunately my experience.

In school I felt like I was on display because my status in care was broadcast to other students and in my placement behavior was leveraged for “privileges” that should be a natural right of all children. Because I did not know my rights I did not know that what I was experiencing was wrong. Today this is exactly why I advocate, because I don’t want this to be the same for other youth who are experiencing foster care.

This is my second year on the FYS Statewide Board and I’m happy to be the Events and Meetings Chair this year because my main goal through advocacy is to reach as many people as possible. My favorite thing as a board member is to see how comfortable members become while working together. The community needs to know that youth in foster care are real people, going through some of the hardest moments of their life and youth need to know that their voice is powerful. I believe that we have to speak up and bring these issues to people’s attention so that they do not forget us. Advocacy, education and consistency is the only way.

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