While Florida law dictates that courts appoint a guardian ad litem to every abused, abandoned, or neglected child, only 68 percent receive such an advocate.
The Florida Guardian Ad Litem Program hopes to increase that figure to 75 percent within one year and to 100 percent within five years, said Alan F. Abramowitz, executive director of the GAL program.
With that goal in mind, the agency is asking for an additional $3.9 million in state funding for the 2013-4 fiscal year.
Abramowitz said with limited resources available, the program is forced to “triage” cases, providing GALs to those children deemed most in need.
“It’s very difficult when we go to a group home to visit a child and see others who don’t have a representative,” Abramowitz said. “That’s why we’re fighting so hard to get additional funding.”
The extra funds would support the program’s “aggressive” recruitment efforts, Abramowitz said.
Those efforts, already underway, are part of an overhaul of the agency’s structure, he said.Under the program’s old model, paid staff managed large caseloads of about 45 dependent children, Abramowitz said. The new strategy expands the agency’s use of volunteers. Rather than caseloads of children, paid staff would supervise about 38 volunteers each, who in turn represent about 75 children, he said.
In addition to serving more children, the new model allows the agency to provide higher quality and more intensive services to those children, Abramowitz said.
“You have one person focused on just one or two children,” he said.
Abramowitz said children represented by volunteers return to foster care at a rate half that of children represented by staff with large caseloads. Children served by volunteers also tend to perform better in school, he added.
In 2012-13, GAL made the same request as this year and received a total of $32 million from the state, including a one-time increase of $1.8 million, he said.
The program is now asking the Legislature to continue appropriating the $1.8 million on an annual basis. The additional $2.1 million would provide salary increases for staff, which are appropriate for the jobs and functions they perform as managers of volunteers, Abramowitz said.
The agency has already begun a large recruitment effort.
In December 2007, about 55 percent of the program’s children were represented by volunteers, Abramowitz said. Volunteers now represent 72 percent of children served by the agency, he said.
By the end of the year, Abramowitz added, the program should have about 9,000 volunteers.
“In 2007, we had 10 percent more money and 50 percent less volunteers,” he said. “We’re becoming more efficient.”
Abramowitz encourages anyone interested in volunteering to visit the program’s website at guardianadlitem.org.
“Attorneys do a great job,” he said. “They have skills and training that allow them to think of those things that no one else is thinking about.”