Tallahassee – On Wednesday, March 23, 2016 Florida Governor Rick Scott signed the Child’s Best Hope Act into law. By signing this bill, Governor Scott is ensuring the best interests of Florida’s most vulnerable children is paramount. The new law allows judges to make decisions regarding adoption intervention using the child’s best interest standard.
The previous law viewed “best interest” differently depending on whether it was a family law case or a dependency case. It permitted a parent, even one who murdered a spouse, committed egregious abuse on a child, or who wished to punish a foster parent who had provided a loving home for the child, to choose who the child would be placed with for adoption. The court was only permitted to determine whether the placement was fit and proper; the court could not consider whether the placement was in the child’s best interest.
One Boy’s Story
After a four year old boy’s mother was murdered by his father, the child was sheltered by the Department of Children and Families and placed with his maternal aunt. While the father was in jail awaiting trial, he choose his mother (the child’s paternal grandmother) to adopt the child effectively eliminating the maternal family from the child’s life. The father asserted “that because his parental rights were still intact, he had a constitutional right to make a permanency determination for his child.” The paternal grandmother asserted “that the trial court was not permitted to veto a parent’s decision simply because it perceived that another placement might be better.’” Because of the wording of Florida’s adoption statute, the court could only determine if the paternal grandmother was a fit and proper placement for the boy. The court could not consider what was in the best interest of the child (including possibly staying with his maternal aunt).
Effective July 1, 2016, dependency judges will be able to “consider and weigh” all relevant factors, including, but not limited to, the permanency offered; the bonded relationship between the child and the current caregiver; stability of adoptive home; reasonable preference of the child, if the court deems the child to be of sufficient maturity, understanding, and experience to express a preference, and what is best for the child; and what is best for the child. This new law applies to all children where an adoption intervention occurs in dependency court.
Sen. Nancy Detert (R-Venice) and Rep. Janet Adkins (R- Fernandina Beach) championed the Child’s Best Hope law in order to allow judges to consider the child’s best interests when making these important adoption placement decisions. As Sen. Nancy Detert said in closing on her bill on the Senate floor, “Our main focus is children. This flaw in our law can be fixed and will smooth out the road for children in the future.”
Rep. Janet Adkins stated “Children are the greatest hope for our state and our community. This legislation will restore common sense on how decisions are made regarding the best interest of a child. This law corrects a tragic flaw in the law that allowed a dangerous individual to cause further harm to his/her children from the confines of prison. I am proud to stand with Florida’s children, their advocates and foster parents to ensure that all children can have the benefits of a stable, loving home.”
Supportive Words from the Advocacy Community…
Mike Carroll, Secretary of the Department of Children and Families: “The journey to adoption for many children can be traumatic and it’s our job as leaders of this state to do everything possible to advocate for a child’s best interest. We have been proud to partner with the Guardian ad Litem program leaders and volunteers in their efforts to pass this important bill which accomplishes that shared goal.”
Alan Abramowitz, Executive Director of the Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office: “We appreciate Governor Rick Scott’s support of Guardian ad Litem volunteers and foster parents throughout the state. They raised this issue, and the Governor listened and supported the bill. It was a true grassroots effort to pass this legislation.”
Sen. Eleanor Sobel, Chair of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee: “Sometimes the long-term needs of the children in our system get lost when looking at permanency issues – but this law changes that and allows the judges to consider all the factors contributing to what’s in the best interest of the child. And that’s what everything we do should be about – what’s ultimately going to serve the children of our state well to help them be able to grow up stable, confident, happy and loved.”
Rep. Gayle Harrell, Chair of House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee: “I am excited that the legislature and governor have recognized what child advocates have known all along – that Florida’s children deserve to have their best interests served when considering their future. By allowing the judiciary the opportunity to weigh all of the facts of a case, this law sends a message to the children of our state that we care about them and their long-term well-being.”
Harriet Wynn, President of Florida State Foster Adoptive Association (FSFAPA): “Stability and permanency are essential elements for the success of Florida’s most vulnerable children. We are proud to have partnered with the Guardian ad Litem program and the diverse coalition of supporters to advocate this sensible bipartisan legislation that solves everyday problems in the Florida child welfare system. Florida foster and adoptive parents thank Governor Scott, Senator Detert, and Representative Harrell for their leadership.”
Jeanne Tate, Board Certified Adoption Attorney: “This law will allow children to exit foster care sooner, achieve much needed permanency, and enhance the birth parents’ right to make responsible parenting decisions.”
Heather Cox Rosenberg, President, Tallahassee Area Foster and Adoptive Parent Association: “When a child in my care can come back to me in the future to ask me about how the system made decisions for their future, I can honestly look them in the eye and say we considered everything from the angle of what was in your best interest. Then I’ll know we did this right because now a judge will be able to look at the entire picture and make a decision based on what will best serve that child’s needs – not what made things easier for the adults. That’s so important!”
Ashely Kalifeh, Guardian ad Litem Volunteer with 10 years’ experience: “A child’s best hope for a strong future where he or she get to grow up happy, safe, confident and secure lies in our ability to do what’s in his or her best interests and the law now allows that to happen.”
Christina Spudeas, Executive Director, Florida’s Children First: “Florida’s children no longer have to hope that we get things right with their long-term well-being. With this law, we are now clearly telling them that we get it. We understand that their hopes and dreams matter and that we’re willing to ensure that what will help them achieve stability and safety is considered from every angle.”
Dr. Thomas Croom, CEO/President, Go Foster!, foster and adoptive parent: “Children in foster care need GREAT parents. We are excited to see policy makers developing common sense solutions that solve problems and that also encourages parent recruitment. More great parents are needed in Florida to engage the foster and adoption system and legislation like this helps.”
Tara Flank, Foster Parent: “It is said that the children’s best interest comes first in dependency cases. As a long term foster parent, I can tell you that is not always the case. Children need stability in placement. They are unable to speak for themselves, so the adults in the system need to be sure that judges have the ability to make decisions that are truly consistent with the child’s best interest. Thank you to all involved with the creation and passing of this bill into law. We are now ensuring that the children are not further victimized by the system that is designed to protect them.”
Read more about the Florida Guardian Ad Litem Program