Howard Talenfeld is one of America’s leading children’s rights, injury, and child disability attorneys representing the needs of abused and neglected children, especially in cases of foster child abuse, child sexual abuse, child rape, and other harm and abuse of children in the child welfare system. His work has resulted in multimillion dollar damage awards and has created systemic change in how government agencies and private institutions care for those vulnerable individuals. In 2018, he was recognized by The Florida Bar Foundation as the recipient of the Medal of Honor Award for a Lawyer. The Medal of Honor Award is the highest award given by The Florida Bar Foundation and recognizes individuals who have distinguished themselves through their exceptional achievements in improving the administration of justice in Florida.
Since the 1980s, Howard has focused his practice exclusively on protecting the rights of vulnerable individuals in civil rights cases, personal injury cases and systemic reform litigation. He has litigated cases that have resulted in multimillion dollar settlements and jury verdicts that changed how governmental and private institutions care for children and the elderly.
Among his wins, Howard prevailed against New York City and the Archdiocese of Brooklyn, which together paid more than $27 million in the case of Judith Leekin. The former foster mother ran what the courts called a “house of horrors” that imprisoned, abused and starved 10 disabled foster children.
Employing creative legal approaches, he has helped to establish funding for child welfare programs throughout Broward County and the State of Florida. Additionally on behalf of both injured and disabled children, he has employed a federal civil rights damage statute and other novel approaches to recover damage awards in excess of Florida’s sovereign immunity limits. In Florida, Howard is responsible for many million dollar plus victories in federal civil rights and negligence claims against Florida Department of Children and Families’ employees and their agencies. His cases have also have resulted in landmark decisional law protecting the rights of children and disabled persons.
Howard began his career involving at-risk children, seniors and the developmentally disabled in the 1980s and 1990s, when he represented the state of Florida in its major class-action lawsuits dealing with the foster care system, children’s mental health system, juvenile justice system, state psychiatric hospitals and the provision of Medicaid services to the developmentally disabled, among others.
Nationally, he pioneered defending these cases by advocating for the improvement and reform of human service systems, while protecting states’ rights and avoiding federal over-sight. In Florida, he also represented governors, secretaries of state agencies, Florida’s Insurance Commissioner, the Florida Legislature and Florida’s Auditor General in civil rights cases in federal and state court. Howard has similarly prevailed in the largest claims against all types of child welfare entities in the state of Florida that injure children.
Howard soon took his knowledge and skill in defending state agencies to help Florida’s at-risk populations, and his successes in trial courts, appellate courts and negotiations formed the foundation of creative legal approaches that have delivered extraordinary results.
In 1998, he served as lead counsel in the Broward County foster care class action, Ward v. Kearney. The resulting settlement agreement greatly improved child welfare practice and almost tripled the District 10 budget for its child welfare system.
In 1999, he achieved another major victory, this time for the Florida’s developmentally disabled population in Baumstein v. Sunrise Community, Inc., 738 So. 2d 420, (Fla. 3DCA 1999). The case established the existence of a private cause of action for damages for the violation of Florida’s Bill of Rights for the developmentally disabled.
He also was the first attorney in Florida to utilize 42 USC § 1983, the federal civil rights damage statute, to recover a damage award in excess of Florida’s sovereign immunity limit of $100,000 on behalf of a foster child. In the 2002 case, Roe v. Florida Department of Children & Family Services, 176 F. Supp. 2d 1310 (S.D. Fla. 2001), Howard negotiated a landmark $5 million settlement and focused the nation’s attention on the case in an episode of ABC’s 20/20.
Throughout his career, Howard has been a forceful advocate for change. He has argued for systemic reform litigation before many state and national groups, including the U.S. Congress, the National Association of State Mental Health Lawyers, the American Public Welfare Association and many Florida legislative committees. In 1996, he was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Youth Law Center, a national children’s advocacy group. He has helped organizations develop into a viable entity that assist at-risk youth and teens.
In 2014, he co-chaired Citizens for Broward’s Children, the political action committee that successfully advocated for the permanent reauthorization in November of the Broward County Children’s Services Council which funds over $60 million dollars a year to protect Broward’s children. He also was on the original steering committee that passed this initiative.
Howard has been equally as effective in the state capital. He helped write the law that required mandatory reporting of child-on-child sexual abuse and rape in community facilities. He also advocated in 2014 for and helped encourage passage and the governor’s signature on House Bill 561 (§ 39.01305, Florida Statutes, “Appointment of an Attorney for a Dependent Child with Certain Special Needs”). The new law ensures children who are victims of sexual abuse, sexual trafficking, are on psychotropic medications, or have been committed to a residential treatment facility, have attorneys representing them in all legal or administrative proceedings. Previously, attorneys were not required, and the best interests of such children were not assured.
Howard’s advocacy dates back almost three decades. He was instrumental in the passage of such landmark legislation as the Foster Children Bill of Rights, Florida’s pilot project on representation of foster children in Dependency Court, and Florida’s interagency education bill for foster children. He also is Founding President of Florida’s Children First, Florida’s premier child advocacy organization.
Professionally, Howard has received numerous awards, including the Daily Business Reviews’ Professional Excellence Lifetime Achievement award in 2016, the University of Miami Law Alumni Association’s Alumni Achievement Award in 2016, Lifestyle Media Group’s “Leader in Law” in 2014, and the Daily Business Review’s “Most Effective Lawyer” in the Public Interest category in 2013. Additionally, he was listed in the 2017 – 2020 editions of The Best Lawyers in America© in the fields of Civil Rights Law and Personal Injury Litigation – Plaintiff. Since 1986, he has been recognized by Martindale Hubbell as having their highest AV Preeminent® rating.
Additionally, he received The Florida Bar President’s Award in 2010, the South Florida Business Journal’s Key Partners Award in 2012, and The Florida Bar President’s 2006 Pro Bono Service Award for the 17th Judicial Circuit in and for Broward County, Florida.
Among other leadership positions, Howard was elected the Founding President of Florida’s Children First in 2002, and has served in that capacity to this day. Howard chaired the Broward Days Children’s Issues Team (2000-2014), was a Director of Florida’s Voice of the Mentally Retarded and sat on the Steering Committee for Citizens for Broward’s Children in 2000. He was also former Director with the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, California between 1996 and 2001. He served on the Board of Trustees of the Broward Jewish Federation, chaired the Campaign Committees of Temple Kol Tikvah, was a Board Member of Hurricane Relief for Miami Foster Kids Inc., served as a Big Brother, and has coached various sports teams, including soccer, baseball and softball.
Howard received his bachelors of business administration degree from University of Miami School of Business, and his Juris Doctor from University of Miami School of Law, cum laude.
- Civil litigation
- Personal injury
- Civil rights
- Children’s rights
- Governmental Consulting
- Appellate practice
- University of Miami, J.D. 1979, cum laude
- University of Miami, B.S. 1974
Professional Associations and Memberships
- Florida Bar Association, admitted 1980
- Florida State and Appellate courts
- United States Supreme Court
- United States District Court of Appeals – 1st, 5th and 11th Circuits
- United States District Court for the Southern, Middle and Northern Districts of Florida
- National Association of Council for Children
- Former Florida Bar Association Legal Needs of Children Committee – (Chair 2009-2010; Member 1999-2010)
- Former Representative for the State of Florida to the National Association of State Mental Health Lawyers and the American Public Welfare Association
Civic and Community Involvement
- Florida’s Children First President (2002 to present)
- Broward Days, Chair Children Issues Team (2000 to 2015)
- Citizens for Broward’s Children Steering Committee member (2000, 2014)
- Former Florida’s Voice on Developmental Disabilities, Director (2002-2003), Member (2002-present)
- Former Director with the Youth Law Center, San Francisco, CA (1996-2001)
- Former Temple Kol Tikvah Board of Trustees member and Campaign Committee Chairs
- Former Board member of Hurricane Relief for Miami Foster Kids, Inc.
- Former Big Brother
- Former sports team coach, including 20 youth baseball, softball and soccer teams
- AV Preeminent® Top Rated Lawyer by Martindale-Hubbell™ since 1986
- Recipient of The Florida Bar Foundation 2018 Medal of Honor Award for a Lawyer
- Listed in The Best Lawyers in America© in the field of Civil Rights Law (2017-2020); Personal Injury Litigation – Plaintiffs (2019-2020)
- Named a “Top Lawyer” in the South Florida Legal Guide (2007-2019)
- Listed in Florida Trend’s Florida 500 (2018)
- The University of Miami Law Alumni Association, Alumni Achievement Award (2016)
- The Heart Gallery of Broward County, Child Advocate of the Year (2016)
- Daily Business Review, Professional Excellence Lifetime Achievement award (2016)
- Lifestyle Media Group, Leaders in Law Winner for Personal Injury (2014)
- Daily Business Review, Most Effective Lawyer recognition, Public Interest (2013)
- South Florida Business Journal “Key Partners Awards” honoree (2012)
- Daily Business Review, Most Effective Lawyer recognition, Pro Bono (2011)
- Featured in Florida Super Lawyer Magazine Article “Fostering Hope” (2010)
- Florida Bar Association “President’s Award of Merit” (2010)
- Broward Days “Community Advocate Award” (2010)
- Lawyers for Children America “Policy Advocate Award” (2010)
- South Florida Business Journal’s Let’s Do Something Giant Award Recipient, Legal Category (2008)
- President’s Pro Bono Service Award for the 17th Judicial Circuit (2006)
- March of Dimes Award (2007)
- Daily Business Review, Most Effective Lawyer recognition (2006)
- Russell Carlisle Award from Legal Aid Service of Broward County 2004 for outstanding contributions to social justice in Broward County
- Kathleen Wright Award for a professional who has improved the quality of life for children in Florida, Family Central (March 2002)
- “Making a Difference” Award, Justice for Children and Families (April 27, 2002)
- Blue Ribbon Hero Award for Guardian ad Litem Pro Bono Attorney (2001-2002)
- Outstanding Citizen of the Year, Broward Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse (April 2000)
- Florida Super Lawyers List (2006-2019)
Speaking Engagements & Presentations:
- “Children with Disabilities in Foster Care,” Presented to Broward County Guardian ad Litem office (2014).
- “Disarming Opposing Experts and Leveraging Your Experts,” Florida Guardian ad Litem Disabilities Training Conference (May 22, 2014). Link to video presentation: http://centervideo.forest.usf.edu/galconf2014/additional/disarming.html
- “Accessing Medicaid and Medicaid Waiver Services for Children with Disabilities in Foster Care,” Tracey McPharlin Dependency Initiative, Attorney Training, sponsored by the Broward County Bar Association and Legal Aid Service of Broward County. (June 20, 2014).
- Presentation to Palm Beach County Guardian ad Litem Office, “The Federal Rights of Dependent Youth,” Palm Beach County, May 9, 2008
- Florida’s Children First, “Improving Outcomes for Older Youth,” Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Feb. 14, 2008
- Presentation on Children’s Mental Health Issues to Judge Steven Leifman, Special Advisor to the Florida Supreme Court, May 22, 2007
- Presentation for Florida Coalition for Children on Avoiding Legal Risk Management within Case Management, November 4, 2004
- Presentations for Florida’s Children First on the Hidden Federal Powers of the Florida Juvenile Dependency Court Judge in Jacksonville, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale & Naples, 2004
- Testimony before the United States House of Representatives Subcommittee on Human Resources, Hearing on Child Protection Programs in Florida, December 14, 1998
- Presentation before New York State (NYS) ARC, Inc., Presentation discussing issues relating to waiting lists for residential services for persons with mental retardation and developmental disabilities in Florida, Albany, New York, August 1, 1998
- Annual Education Meeting of the Florida Conference of Circuit Judges With Florida’s Federal Trial Judges and the Judges of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, “The Hidden Powers of the Juvenile Court Judge to Protect the Rights of Children,” Jacksonville, Florida, November 30-December 3, 1997
- Florida State Guardianship Association, Inc., 9th Annual Conference, “Abuse and Neglect–What Every Guardian Should Know,” Dania, Florida, September 20-21, 1996
- National Association of State Mental Health Attorneys – 13th Annual Conference and Annual Conference of Interstate Compact Coordinators on Mental Health, “Institutional Reform Litigation and Mental Health: The Impact of Federal Supervision on Mental Health Systems through Section 1983 Litigation,” San Antonio, Texas, October 24-27, 1993
- University of South Florida, Department of Law and Mental Health, The Florida Mental Health Institute, “Violence and its Challenge to the Juvenile Justice System: Implications for Advocacy Programs and Research – Advocacy Strategies: A Systems Approach,” Tampa, Florida, June 16, 1993
- HRS District Legal Counsel Workshop, “Federal Court Update and Status of Section 1983 Liability,” Tallahassee, Florida , May 6-7, 1993
- HRS District Legal Counsel Workshop, “Federal Court Update and Status of Section 1983 Liability,” Wakulla Springs, Florida, October 29-30,1992
- National Association of State Mental Health Attorneys – 12th Annual Conference and Annual Conference of Interstate Compact Coordinators on Mental Health, “Defenses Unique to State Entities and Officials in State and Federal Courts and Class Action Suits,” Portland, Oregon, September 19-23, 1992
- Testimony before the United States Senate Finance Subcommittee on Social Security and Family Policy, Impact of the Suter Amendment, Washington, D.C., September 17, 1992
- Florida Council for Community Mental Health – 1992 Annual Conference, “In Stride with Change – Shaping the Future: Court Mandates and ADM’s Service Delivery System,” Daytona Beach, Florida, September 16, 1992
- Fourth Annual ACLU of Florida Lawyers Conference, Presentation on Children’s Rights and Parent’s Rights, Key West, Florida, August 21-22, 1992
- University of Miami Law School – Mental Health Law, Presentation on the Defendants’ View of Mental Health Litigation, Miami, Florida, March 3, 1992
- National Association of State Mental Health Attorneys, Presentation of Section 1983, “Strategies for Defending Class Action Claims for Injunctive Relief,” Orlando, Florida, October 15, 1991
- American Association of Public Welfare, Presentation regarding Florida’s experience in defending child welfare litigation at the state and local level, Washington, D.C., July 23, 1991
- The Center for the Study of Youth Policy, Nova University, Shepard Broad Law Center, Presentation on The Broward Detention Initiative, its impact on detention practices, population and the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 1990 symposium, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, June 27, 1991
- HRS District Legal Counsel Seminar, Presentation to all District Legal Counsel on utilization of Extraordinary Writs, Tallahassee, Florida, May 23, 1991
- National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, Zinermon v. Burch Presentation, Kansas City, Missouri, November 1990
Howard Talenfeld has been a frequent and vocal voice for foster children, and physically abused, sexually abused and developmentally disabled children. Among his television appearances have been:
Howard Talenfeld on Good Morning America (2002)
Howard Talenfeld on 20/20 (2002)
Howard Talenfeld Comments on 60-Day DCF Investigation Limit WTVJ NBC (2014)
Howard Talenfeld Comments on Homestead Toddler Death DCF Investigation (NBC 6 – 2013)
Howard Talenfeld: Florida DCF Interim Director Should Stay On (WPLG – 2013)
Howard Talenfeld Discusses Failure of Florida Child Protective System (NBC 6 – 2013)
Howard Talenfeld Comments on Child Death Investigation (WFOR CBS Miami – 2013)
Howard Talenfeld: Outside Commission Should Examine Florida ChildNet (WFOR CBS Miami – 2013)