Children & Youth Law Clinic Victories Exemplify Foster Youth Advocacy

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As it prepares for its 20th anniversary, the Children & Youth Law Clinic is celebrating a string of victories for foster children in Florida. The wins establish rights and benefits for youth in cases involving developmental disabilities services, normalcy for foster youth, and the programs that help foster youth age out of care successfully.

The Clinic has a long history of advocating for the state to provide appropriate services for children with emotional and behavioral disorders and – equally as important – to prevent children from being committed to lockdown residential treatment centers for inappropriate reasons.  The law recognizes that this extreme deprivation of liberty should be taken only when the child has a serious emotional disorder, and there are no less restrictive alternatives for treatment.

Finding Proper Placement for Youth

Max, a 14-year-old client of the clinic, submitted to three different psychological assessments that found he was not suitable for a residential facility. The evaluators described him as “strong-willed” and “difficult” but not in need of a lock-down psychiatric program. When Max’s mother kicked him out, and he refused to live in a group home where he did not feel safe, the Department of Children and Families announced that it had no placements for him. The trial court issued an ultimatum: either Max could voluntarily enter a substance abuse program, or he could be held in contempt and placed in jail. Max chose neither.

The Clinic sought certiorari review of the order.  The Third District Court of Appeal agreed with Max that a trial court cannot order a child to “voluntarily submit” to a drug program, and there was no factual basis to involuntarily commit Max. Additionally, the Third District held that the trial court was without legal authority to order a foster youth to submit to recurring drug tests, refrain from running away, or to abstain from using drugs under penalty of contempt.

Robert Latham, the supervising attorney on the case, explained, “the opinion vindicates the principle, called normalcy, that foster youth should not experience more punitive treatment just because of their status as foster youth. The laws about curfew and treatment programs should apply equally to children who live with their parents and those in the care of the state.”  The Third District recognized that “the trial court is working to provide needed care and treatment for this youth, but the court must work within the available statutory framework.”

Since the ruling, Max has moved into a home where he feels comfortable and supported. Through the Clinic’s advocacy, he was transferred to a mainstream school where he is regularly attending, expanding his social skills through a gay-straight alliance, and excited for a school trip in the spring.  

Challenges Aging Out of Foster Care

For Clinic client Antonio, the transition to adulthood was filled with both significant opportunities and challenges. Without support from his family, Antonio relied heavily on Extended Foster Care, a state program that provides housing, financial assistance, and services to foster youth from age 18 to 21.  When he left the program and later applied to be readmitted, he was denied because the state said his apartment was too expensive and did not meet their standards for supervision. The state instead referred him to several group homes.  For Antonio, these placements were a step backward regarding independence.

The Clinic appealed the denial of Antonio’s application in a process that took six months. In the meantime, Antonio left the apartment due to conflicts with roommates and became essentially homeless, staying with friends around Miami. By the time summer semester students Jeff Sauer and Joy McDermott were preparing for trial, the argument changed from whether a certain apartment was appropriate to a challenge to the entire process that took six months to provide resolution to the youth.

The administrative hearing officer agreed with the Clinic that the process was not consistent with law. Youth aging out of foster care, the hearing officer ruled, were entitled to admission to the program immediately upon proof of school attendance (a prerequisite). Any disagreements over the living arrangements could then immediately be heard by the presiding dependency court judge.  
“I think the case demonstrated the importance of interpreting procedural requirements outlined in various statutes with extreme attention to detail,” said Sauer. The opinion came too late for Antonio, who will turn 21 and no longer be eligible, but he has expressed hope that it prevents future youth from experiencing the same difficulties he did.

Seeking Support for GED

The same student team also represented Shana, a former foster youth who was working on her GED.  “Both clients are very hard-working young adults who, unlike many people their age, take full advantage of the educational opportunities presented to them and have bright futures ahead of them.  However, those futures are contingent on continued access to the state programs and educational stipends,” said Sauer.

Shana was terminated from the Road to Independence Program, a stipend for youth who age out of foster care to pursue their education. The Department alleged that Shana was not making sufficient progress towards her GED. Her educational program indicated that her progress was slow but steady. After a full hearing, the hearing officers agreed with the Clinic that Shana should be held to the standard set by her school.  Shana was able to continue working on her GED and plans to go to college.

Fighting for Benefits for Persons with Disabilities

At ten years old, Nathan is one of the Clinic’s younger clients.  When a psychologist diagnosed Nathan with an intellectual disability, the Clinic applied for benefits to the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. The agency, however, denied the application based on a 5-year-old school evaluation.  Students Tyonna Brent and Isabel Jolicoeur prepared vigorously for the hearing, learning about intellectual disability assessment methods, researching legal precedents, interviewing expert witnesses, and preparing their questions and arguments for the hearing. Notably, the students were unable to track down the school evaluation that had formed the basis for the denial.

The evaluation was referenced in another report, but no one – including the Agency for Persons with Disabilities – could produce a complete copy of the evaluation to verify its accuracy. After several conversations with opposing counsel, the Agency announced on the night before the hearing that it would reverse its position and find Nathan eligible for the program.  

The Clinic, along with the Center for Ethics and Public Service, will be celebrating its 20th anniversary on Friday, September 23 at 4:30-6:30 p.m., where it will hold a CLE panel discussion in F109, followed by a cocktail reception at the Alma Jennings Foundation Student Lounge.