Foundation seeks contributions

first_img May 15, 2000 Regular News Foundation seeks contributions “Imagine being a child taken from the only home you know, the family you trust, and your familiar surroundings. Then imagine being pushed and pulled through a system dominated by adults in offices and stark rooms, being placed in a stranger’s house to stay temporarily, and being frightened like you’ve never been frightened before.” This imagery is in a letter from Bar President-elect Herman J. Russomanno accompanying the 2000-01 Bar fee statement which will soon be arriving in members’ mailboxes. The letter urges Bar members to envision the lives of the nearly 24 percent Florida children living in poverty — according to the 1999 Kids Count published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation — and asks Bar members to make a $25 tax deductible contribution to The Florida Bar Foundation to bring the benefits of the law and of lawyers to the lives of poor children. The Foundation will dedicate Bar members’ contributions to legal assistance to children through grants to legal aid and legal services programs across the state. “Although there are laws to assist these children, the reality is without the services of a lawyer and related legal assistance, the future will remain bleak for thousands of Florida’s most vulnerable children,” Russomanno said. “We have an opportunity to improve their lives by helping to ensure their legal rights are represented — rights to services these children desperately need if they are to become contributing members of society.” The 2000-2001 fee statements — reflecting no increase in fees and only minor modifications to the form — will be mailed by May 19. The fees are payable July 1 and are late after August 15. Annual fees are still $190. Inactive members pay $140. For the past several years, the Bar Foundation has funded special annual grants for legal representation of children out of IOTA funds. But these grants will be cut starting next year because of a reduction in IOTA income brought on by low bank interest rates. “Our $25 contributions to the Bar Foundation on the Bar fee statement can make up that cut and provide even more children the services of a lawyer to help them get a better start in life,” Russomanno said. The Foundation set several goals for its Children’s Legal Services grant initiative, but emphasizes access to special education and health care services required under law. An example of a special education service is providing a student who is hypersensitive to noise and distraction extra time with a teacher or tutor in a quieter setting to supplement what goes on in the regular classroom. Another goal is to create and energize a statewide network of children’s legal services providers. The network also can provide support to the thousands of Florida attorneys involved in children’s legal services through guardian ad litem and other projects. A. Hamilton Cooke of Jacksonville heads up the 2000-01 Bar fee statement “Lawyers’ Challenge for Children” campaign. Cooke said another goal of the children’s legal services grants initiative is to demonstrate the impact on children’s lives of dedicating funding for specific children’s legal services efforts. Cooke, the Foundation’s president-elect, describes the initiative as one of the “most important and rewarding efforts” the Foundation has ever funded. “When our legal aid grantees send in their reports describing the kinds of cases they handle, I’m continually astounded at the obstacles poor children and their families have to overcome,” Cooke said. “There’s a particularly sad case of a 17-year-old girl a school had labeled a trouble maker and a bad seed.” Cooke said her long history of discipline problems began when she was nine and after a fight at school, the district started expulsion proceedings. “Despite her long history of discipline problems, the school never formally looked into the possible cause of her behavior problems at school or evaluated her for evidence of an emotional disability,” Cooke said. “After several interviews by legal services advocates, the parents opened up and revealed that, at age nine, their daughter had been kidnaped and raped. As a result of the efforts of legal aid the school district ultimately conceded error and dismissed their expulsion petition.” Cooke said the district also agreed to place the girl in an intense therapeutic educational setting where she is doing well. “While the outcome for this girl is good, there are still tens of thousands of children in Florida schools who have similarly serious problems and no access to legal advocacy,” Cooke said. According to IOTA Legal Assistance for the Poor Grant Committee Chair Terry Russell, president-elect designate of The Florida Bar, state and federal lawmakers have recognized that providing access to appropriate special education services and health care is not only in the best interests of the child, but it is in the best interests of society — especially when it comes to promoting public safety. “Still, children who have discipline problems or who do poorly in school often are more likely to be suspended or expelled than examined and treated, despite the requirements of the law,” Russell said. Foundation Children’s Legal Services grantee reports cite additional examples such as local school principals filing criminal complaints against special education children without advising law enforcement of their disabilities, or illegally denying parents the right to examine and photocopy their child’s school file. Another Foundation grantee reports the case of a 13-year old special education student suffering from Tourettes Syndrome who was being expelled from school for battery on a school teacher. In a meeting set up by legal aid, it was proven that the school was not appropriately assisting the child deal with the extreme frustration caused by his disability and the shoe thrown by the boy had hit his teacher’s leg after bouncing off a desk. As a result, the expulsion petition was withdrawn, and in collaboration with a Department of Juvenile Justice caseworker, legal aid succeeded in having the criminal charges against the student dropped. Legal aid also provided the boy’s teachers with information about Tourettes Syndrome — after they had admitted knowing nothing about it — and a process was put into place for the child to receive additional testing and the establishment of a more appropriate education plan. Obstacles to gaining access to health care services by poor children range from improper denial or termination of medicaid, to failure to provide court-ordered mental health treatment. Other prevalent legal needs involve children eligible under Florida’s children’s health insurance programs, who routinely fall through the cracks as state caseworkers struggle to administer increasingly complex and ever changing eligibility formulas and health insurance application procedures. Russell likened the situation poor families face in obtaining health insurance benefits for their children to clients trying to develop a parcel of land without assistance from an experienced attorney. “Except every hour spent in line by a parent at a state benefit office means time off work — often unpaid — and delay or failure in securing the health coverage affects your child’s very well being,” Russell said. Cooke said he believes Bar members will want to support Children’s Legal Services. “It’s not often that we can make such a huge difference in the life of a child with only a $25 contribution,” Cooke said. “Moreover, the check off for the Bar Foundation on the fee statement is a very efficient form of fundraising.” Cooke said in order to make their contributions count, Bar members need to make sure that their tax deductible gift to the Foundation is added in to their Bar fee statement total. Foundation seeks contributionslast_img

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