Twenty years ago, child advocates from across the state who were individually working on issues affecting Florida’s most vulnerable children came together with the idea that we could collectively make a greater impact. We ran the gamut in perspective — coming from private practice, businesses, law school clinics, and legal aid organizations —but we were united in our mission to achieve greater reform in the systems that affect children.
Our vision in founding Florida’s Children First was to use a broad range of advocacy strategies to improve the lives of children served by the state. We believed that the effective implementation of public policy could lead to improve the lives and outcomes for children throughout our state. Twenty years later, I can say proudly that we have made great strides – but our work is far from over.
We worked hard to increase the number of children in state care who have their own attorneys, and to improve the quality of representation provided by all attorneys in the system. We’re also a leader in training all child welfare stakeholders on the laws that are intended to protect and benefit children. But we don’t just educate people about the law, we help make the law better for children.
Florida’s Children First has ensured that child victims of sexual abuse and those who were trafficked have more protections. We were part of improvements to the law to promote educational stability for children in care, and access to higher education for young adults. Some of our greatest successes have come in partnership with the youth themselves.
An important perspective was missing from the table in Florida, the children who were experiencing the system. Therefore, in 2005, we founded Florida Youth Shine (FYS), which has since become Florida’s youth advocacy organization to advocate for transformational improvements to the child welfare system both on a state and local level. Over the past 17 years they have evolved into a powerful independent youth-led advocacy organization made up of youth ages 14-24 who have experienced the child welfare system. Thousands of youths have participated in FYS and gained advocacy and leadership skills to thrive as adults. FYS was instrumental in partnering with Florida’s Children First to promote the extension of foster care to 21 so youth weren’t kicked out at age 18, the normalcy bill to ensure that foster children have the ability to participate in activities just like their peers, and the expansion of the tuition exemption to cover children placed with relatives. This is just a small sampling of their achievements.
On April 7th, we celebrate 20 years of service. As we look ahead to the next 20 years, we will continue to advocate for systemic reform so that all children in state care have access to high quality legal representation. We will work hard to become a stronger, louder voice in the state legislature to improve the lives of our children. We will continue to put Florida’s children first.
Howard M. Talenfeld, Esq., President of Florida’s Children First