By Beatrice Dupuy
Doris Freyre believes her daughter would still be alive today if an attorney had intervened.
But Marie Freyre, 14, only had her mother to fight for her before she died in a Miami nursing home in 2011.
Freyre said a new law signed by Gov. Rick Scott could have made the difference in her disabled daughter's life had it existed before.
After signing a child welfare overhaul Monday, Gov. Rick Scott signed another bill that could begin to give voice to children long rendered voiceless. Scott signed HB 561 Wednesday, requiring the appointment of an attorney for dependent children with special needs.
The Florida Legislature set aside $4.5 million to pay attorneys willing to represent disabled and medically needy children in the court system, said a statement from the advocacy group Florida's Children First. Attorneys may also provide their services pro bono.
"It's been our mission since 2002 to enact a law like this because disabled children are the most vulnerable children to come into our child welfare system," said Howard Talenfeld, president of Florida's Children First. "Unfortunately, they have to face a maze of bureaucratic hurdles in order to obtain the benefits they need to be safe and to survive in the foster care system."
Under the new law, attorneys would be appointed to children who meet several criteria, including youngsters who live in nursing homes, are diagnosed with a developmental disability -- such as autism, cerebral palsy or Down syndrome -- or who are the victims of human trafficking. Children who are prescribed psychiatric drugs, but refuse to take them, also can be appointed a laywer under the new law.
The state Department of Children & Families will select dependent children who qualify for an attorney.
Florida child welfare administrators came under fire after a Miami Herald investigation identified nearly 500 children since 2008 who died of abuse or neglect after their families had already been known to DCF. Eighty five of the children who perished suffered either from a developmental disability or a complex medical condition.
Tamiyah Audain was one of those children. Tamiyah, who was 12 at the time, was diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis, a disease that caused tumors to grow in her brain and other organs. Tamiyah also suffered from autism. When her mother died and her father abandoned her, she was sent to live with a cousin in Lauderhill. In late 2013, she was found dead in her cousin's apartment, severely malnourished, and with gaping bedsores and a wound so deep her bone was visible.
"Nobody understood that she needed Medicaid . . . benefits," said Talenfeld, referring to the public insurance program. "It was time for somebody to fight for her emergency benefits to protect her." The law, sponsored in the Legislature by Bradenton Sen. Bill Galvano and Miami Rep. Erik Fresen, takes effect July 1.
"These children often cannot speak for themselves, and if they can, they find themselves in courtrooms or complex administrative hearings without any representation," Fresen said in a Florida's Children First press release. "We wouldn't send a criminal defendant into such a situation without counsel. It's time we provide the same legal support and representation for the state's most vulnerable and innocent citizens when their lives are at stake."
To some child advocates, more still needs to be done to protect children like Tamiyah.
A recent report said that physically disabled Florida children are 17 times more likely to die from abuse or neglect than their typically developing peers.
All children need lawyers in order to represent their interests, said Miami attorney Matt Dietz, who represents Freyre.
Dietz said things might have turned out differently for Marie if the provisions of the new law were already in effect when Marie was winding her way through Hillsborough County's child welfare court system. Three years ago, Marie was taken from her home in Tampa and transported to a nursing home in Miami by DCF. About 12 hours later, Marie died of a heart attack while screaming for her life.
Dietz is suing the state Agency for Health Care Administration, and other agencies, to force the state to remove scores of children with medical complexities from elder nursing homes. Under the state's Medicaid Program for impoverished and needy Floridians, the state will pay for a nursing home bed, but, often, not for sometimes cheaper in-home nursing care. The U.S. Department of Justice also has put pressure on the state to remove children from nursing homes.
"You have to look into exhausting what's in the best interests of the child and focus on keeping the family together rather than what's the most cost-effective solution for the state," Dietz said. "The policy change may have helped Marie, and the state of Florida to provide her the assistance and care she needed."
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