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New website offers help to parents of adult children with disabilities

Florida Times-Union - 1/26/2019

Jan. 26--When the parent of a child with a developmental disability reaches adulthood, their legal ability to make medical and financial decisions for their dependent child changes.

But a new, free resource for families aims to help parents better navigate the legal system so that they are still able to be advocates for their adult children.

Turning18.org was developed by the Florida Justice Technology Center, with support from The Florida Bar Foundation, as a resource for families facing that unfamiliar and uncertain situation.

"Knowledge can be a huge comfort to families that are dealing with children who are dependent and always will be at some level," said Kathy Para, pro bono director at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, which serves 17 counties in Northeast Florida. "It can be a tremendous stress reliever any time you can eliminate an unknown for any of us. That goes a long way to being productive and accomplishing something that will be a stabilizer and a comfort moving forward."

Alison DeBelder, advocate community engagement manager for the Florida Justice Technology Center, said the primary purpose of the website is to educate parents about the legal options available to them. It explains the difference, for example, between guardianship, which gives broader rights to the parents, and guardian advocacy, and the steps necessary to pursue each option. Guardianship requires an attorney, but guardian advocacy can be done without one and Turning18 can help to complete the required paperwork.

"For folks who can't afford an attorney, they may end up making a decision that is overreaching and takes more rights away than necessary, or they do nothing and it leaves folks in the lurch," DeBelder said.

The website is Florida-specific, and is written without unnecessarily complicated legalese so it is as accessible as possible, she said.

Lisa DiFranzia, an attorney in private practice who also does some pro bono work with JALA, gave examples in which a parent may need some degree of oversight for their child. One client, she said, was concerned her child would open a line of credit and buy a truck they couldn't afford. Others have been concerned that their child may fall prey to scammers and identity theft on social media. With guardianship or guardian advocate oversight, parents can help their kids to make better financial and medical decisions, and intervene when necessary, she said.

"The child may not understand the consequences of of their social decisions," DiFranzia said.

An estimated 58,000 kids with developmental disabilities turn 18 in Florida each year.

Tessa Duvall: (904) 359-4697

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