Children & Youth Legal Services

LSNF provides legal assistance to needy children and youth in critical areas that affect their safety, wellbeing and future development. Primarily, LSNF works in the areas of foster care (dependency), education, and expungement.

This involves advocating for children who need physical and mental health benefits, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), services from the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, and other needs that may come up. 

In Florida, 578,317 students received special education services in 2021-22 – there are students in special education in every school district. In the region served by LSNF, there were 40,421.

40421

Foster Care

Florida students speak more than 300 languages. The most common languages are Spanish and Haitian Creole. In 2021-22, Florida had nearly 300,000 English learners. 

Education

In Florida, 578,317 students received special education services in 2021-22 – there are students in special education in every school district. In the region served by LSNF, there were 40,421.

Expungement

Research shows that over 40 percent of men and 20 percent of women have been arrested at least once by the young age of 23. Furthermore, nearly 50 percent of arrests end in non-convictions or case dismissals. Almost a quarter of those arrested were never even formally charged.

Foster Care

Florida law provides lawyers for certain children and youth who are in the “dependency” system (sometimes called foster care, although dependency includes more children and youth). The court appoints LSNF lawyers for children and youth who:

Developmentally delayed

Have been trafficked

Prescribed psychotropic (psychiatric) medications to which they cannot assent

Placed in a nursing home

Placed in a psychological facility

When children are in crisis, LSNF is at their side to provide protection, support and hope. In addition to free legal services for children in foster care, LSNF provides targeted public policy and class action advocacy to achieve system-wide changes in the field of child welfare.

These children and youth have a variety of needs, and LSNF works with these children and youth to provide holistic representation – LSNF starts with what is happening in dependency, but doesn’t stop there. We believe that children and youth deserve a voice in important decisions that impact their lives. LSNF lawyers have a confidential relationship with each child or youth; make sure that the children and youth understand their rights; counsel them about important decisions; and advocate for what the child or youth wants. This is called “expressed interest” or youth-centered advocacy.

Education

Education is a basic right and critical for children and youth to become successful adults. However, sometimes this right needs to be protected. Some of the issues that LSNF handles are:

Special Education and 504 Plans

Student Discipline

Mental health, mobile response teams and Baker Acts

LBGTQ+ rights

Rights of English Learners

Privacy

The federal government, under U.S. Code Title 20, Chapter 33, ensures rights to disabled students and their families through a law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This act governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to children with disabilities. IDEA addresses the special needs of children with disabilities from birth to age twenty-six. All states are governed by IDEA.

Every school district is required by law to identify and evaluate students with disabilities. Then, the disabled students may be given special education programs and services individualized for their special needs.

Special ed law has certain requirements for students to be eligible for IDEA services. Children are entitled to IDEA rights if they are between the ages of three and twenty-one and have any of the following:

Intellectual disability
Hearing impairment or deafness
Speech or language impairment
Visual impairment or blindness
Serious emotional disturbance
Orthopedic impairment
Autism
Traumatic brain injury
Specified learning disability
Other health impairment

Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

Every child who qualifies for special education must have an IEP- a plan that specifies the services to be provided and how often, describes the student's present levels of performance and how the student's disabilities affect academic performance and specify accommodations and modifications to be provided for the student. Every school staff member, particularly classroom teachers, must follow this plan.
The IEP must meet the child's special needs in the least restrictive environment appropriate to that child. The IEP team must meet once a year to reevaluate and continue developing the child's IEP based on changing needs. This team must include:

at least one of the child's regular classroom teachers

A special education teacher

someone who can read the educational implications of the child's evaluation (usually a psychologist). This person can be someone who is already a member of the team;

an administrator who is familiar with what services are available in the district and can make those services available to the child;

a representative of the school district who is qualified to provide, or supervise the provision of, specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of children with disabilities; knowledgeable about the general education curriculum; and knowledgeable about the availability of resources of the district;

other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child, including related services personnel as appropriate (optional); and

A special  whenever appropriate, the child with the disability.  teacher

 

The format of IEPs will vary among different school districts, but they all must contain the same basic information

a description of the child's current academic achievement and functional performance in school

measurable annual goals structured to meet the child's special educational need

the situation and services needed to provide the child with the appropriate education

considerations of vocational, placement, and transitional needs for a child who is 14 or older

the parents' right to take any dispute with the child's school district to a neutral third party for a resolution


If you’d like to understand more about special education, here are some videos:

504 Plans

Some students don’t qualify for special education but still need assistance to remove obstacles. Federal law (Rehabilitation Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)) bans discrimination against people with disabilities, including those with physical, mental, and learning differences.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, a child with a disability is defined as a person who:

1.) Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity;

2.) Has a record of such an impairment;

3.) Is regarded as having such an impairment

What's the purpose?

The purpose of 504 plans is to make classrooms accessible and ensure that no one with a disability is excluded from participating in federally funded programs, including school.

504 plans seek to level the playing field so those students can safely pursue the same opportunities as everyone else. 504 plan accommodations are designed so that a student can learn in a classroom environment for the entire day and participate in school just as they would if they didn't have a disability, rather than being taught in separate special education classrooms. Each 504 plan and its listed accommodations will be uniquely suited to the individual student's needs.

The students defined as disabled by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act who are eligible to receive services are broader than for students eligible for IEPs and encompass all disabilities. Section 504 does not specifically list which disabilities are included.

Children who benefit from 504 plans are those who are able to learn at a typical level if they are provided appropriate accommodations. This means that a child with intellectual disabilities will most likely need an IEP while a child with diabetes or asthma might require a 504. Other disabilities, such as ADHD, dyslexia, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), could be candidates for a 504 or an IEP depending on the specifics of the child's condition.

Student Discipline

Students are disciplined at school every day – but some forms of discipline such as suspension or expulsion can have a serious impact on student’s futures. Specific laws protect students with disabilities from being disciplined for behavior that is connected to their disability.

Discipline at school is also connected to the larger criminal justice system. Millions of students are being removed from their classrooms each year, mostly in
middle and high schools, and overwhelmingly for minor misconduct. When suspended, these students are at a significantly higher risk of falling behind academically, dropping out of school, and coming into contact with the juvenile justice system. A disproportionately large percentage of disciplined students are youth of color, students with disabilities, and youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT).

Black, Hispanic, and American Indian students are suspended at much higher rates than their White peers—sometimes at double the rate.

Twenty percent of secondary school students with disabilities were suspended in a single school year, compared to fewer than ten percent of their peers without disabilities.

LGBTQ+ youth are up to three times more likely to experience harsh disciplinary treatment than their heterosexual counterparts.

To better understand student discipline and student rights, watch the video below:

 

Mental Health, Mobil Response Teams & Baker Acts

According to the CDC, there are concerning trends about the mental health of U.S. high school students.

More than 1 in 3 high school students had experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2019, a 40 percent increase since 2009.

In 2019, approximately 1 in 6 youth reported making a suicide plan in the past year, a 44% increase since 2009.

Some groups are more affected than others.

These feelings were found to be more common among lesbian, gay, or bisexual students and female students.

Almost half of lesbian, gay, or bisexual students and nearly one-third of students not sure of their sexual identity reported they had seriously considered suicide—far more than heterosexual students.

The number of black students who reported attempting suicide in 2019 rose by almost 50%.

Poor mental health in adolescence is more than feeling blue. It can impact many areas of a teen’s life. Youth with poor mental health may struggle with school and grades, decision making, and their health.

Mental health problems in youth often go hand-in-hand with other health and behavioral risks like increased risk of drug use, experiencing violence, and higher risk sexual behaviors than can lead to HIV, STDs, and unintended pregnancy. Because many health behaviors and habits are established in adolescence that will carry over into adult years, it is very important to help youth develop good mental health.

In Florida, Mobile Response Teams (MRTs) are available to support students in crisis – wherever they are, including in school.

Sometimes, students are removed from school and taken to a hospital or other facility for a mental health evaluation. These removals are called Baker Acts, and Florida law includes special protections for youth.

To learn more about MRTs and Baker Acts, review the videos below:

LBGTQ+

Some LGBTQ+ youth experience supportive, welcoming school environments where they are physically and emotionally safe and their LGBTQ+ identity is respected or even embraced. Others may experience unwelcoming, unsafe, and unsupportive conditions in schools. Research has found that LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to experience stress and fear in school than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. This experience is associated with verbal harassment (e.g., being subject to name calling), physical harassment (e.g., being pushed or shoved), and physical assault (e.g., being punched or kicked) because of sexual identity and gender identity/expression.

These negative conditions can affect the likelihood that LGBTQ+ youth attend and complete school. Research on LGBTQ youth shows that if they experience bullying and victimization, they are more likely to:

drop out of school

have higher absenteeism

have lower postsecondary education aspirations

have higher levels of depression and anxiety

have lower self-esteem.

Federal law prohibits discrimination against LGBTQ+ students. To better understand these rights, watch the video below

English Learners

Students who speak a language other than English, sometimes called English Learners, or English Language Learners, can struggle in school. These students are essentially learning two things at once: the English language and then whatever subject they are studying (math, history, etc.)

Schools are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of race, color (ethnicity), or national origin.
Schools are not allowed to ask any student about their immigration status, and all students in the United States have the right to attend school.

These negative conditions can affect the likelihood that LGBTQ+ youth attend and complete school. Research on LGBTQ youth shows that if they experience bullying and victimization, they are more likely to:

drop out of school

have higher absenteeism

have lower postsecondary education aspirations

have higher levels of depression and anxiety

have lower self-esteem.

Federal law requires schools both to not discriminate against English learners and to provide specific support to these students. To learn more about EL student rights, watch the video below:

Privacy

In this technological age, privacy might seem a thing of the past. But school records – including discipline – can harm as well as help students, so only certain people have a right to see these records.

A federal law called The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99) protects the privacy of student education records.

FERPA gives parents certain rights with respect to their children's education records. These rights transfer to the student when he or she reaches the age of 18 or attends a school beyond the high school level.
These rights are:

  • the right to inspect and review the student's education records maintained by the school.
  • the right to request that a school correct records which they believe to be inaccurate or misleading. If the school decides not to amend the record, the parent or eligible student then has the right to a formal hearing. After the hearing, if the school still decides not to amend the record, the parent or eligible student has the right to place a statement with the record setting forth his or her view about the contested information.

Generally, schools must have written permission to release any information from a student's education record. However, FERPA allows exceptions:

    1. School officials with legitimate educational interest;
    2. Other schools to which a student is transferring;
    3. Specified officials for audit or evaluation purposes;
    4. Appropriate parties in connection with financial aid to a student;
    5. Organizations conducting certain studies for or on behalf of the school;
    6. Accrediting organizations;
    7. To comply with a judicial order or lawfully issued subpoena;
    8. Appropriate officials in cases of health and safety emergencies; and
    9. State and local authorities, within a juvenile justice system, pursuant to specific State law.

Schools may disclose, without consent, "directory" information such as a student's name, address, telephone number, date and place of birth, honors and awards, and dates of attendance. However, schools must tell parents about directory information and allow parents a reasonable amount of time to request that the school not disclose directory information about them. Schools must notify parents and eligible students annually of their rights under FERPA.

To learn more about rights under FERPA, watch the video below:

Expungement

Research shows that over 40 percent of men and 20 percent of women have been arrested at least once by the young age of 23. Furthermore, nearly 50 percent of arrests end in non-convictions or case dismissals. Almost a quarter of those arrested were never even formally charged.
But the arrest record and court appearance is still a matter of public record. A petty shoplifting charge at age 13 or a “harmless” Minor in Possession charge as a freshman in college are subject to scrutiny.


Florida does not require charges of juveniles to be erased from public records.

These records can limit many life activities, such as:

Most states allow employers to deny jobs to anyone with a criminal record, regardless of how long ago it was or the individual’s work history and personal circumstances.

Renting an Apartment. Many landlords now require a full criminal background check prior to leasing.

Going to College. Application to higher education institutions and occupations may be denied due to a record of arrest, even for minor crimes or non-convictions.

Making a Living. Most professional certificates also require a completely clean record.

Getting Insurance. In some cases, a history with the law can prevent you from obtaining insurance policies or qualify you for a hefty increase your deductible payment.

Volunteering with many organizations.

Florida law offers several types of expungement. LSNF works with pro bono attorneys to review juvenile records, determine what kind of expungement makes sense, and guide youth through this process.