Appellate Section protects abused and neglected kids
‘It’s going like gangbusters’
By Jim Ash
A move by the Statewide Guardian ad Litem Program to tap the Florida Bar Appellate Practice Section’s substantial well of experience and expertise is working far better than organizers ever dreamed.
And what’s delighting “Defending Best Interests Project” creator and GAL appellate lawyer Thomasina Moore the most is that abused and neglected children are turning out to be the big winners.
“It’s going like gangbusters,” she said. “We have over 1,500 hours that have been put in by the attorneys and almost 800 of those are from the Appellate Practice Section members, people who are board certified, former law clerks to Supreme Court justices, people that are really sought after in the industry.”
A Guardian ad Litem is a court-appointed volunteer who advocates for a child, usually in dependency proceedings that arise from allegations of abuse or neglect. But finding front-line volunteers isn’t what the project is all about. It’s designed to bolster the GAL legal team by absorbing some of the 600 appeals it handles every year.
Moore was hoping to attract 25 volunteers in the first year, but more than double that have come forward in the first six months.
Joe Eagleton, chair of the Appellate Practice Section’s Pro Bono Committee, said the advantages for both parties were immediately obvious.
“We were thrilled when she approached us,” Eagleton said. “It really seemed like a match made in heaven.”
Section volunteers can satisfy their annual pro bono obligations while helping children in need. The work is even more attractive because GAL staff have the transcripts ready to go and offer access to a brief bank, Eagleton said.
“It eliminates some of the administrative work and frees them up to do what they love the most, which is to just focus on the appeal,” Eagleton said. “They already have the record in hand. And there are no client management issues.”
Volunteer attorneys can do the appellate work at home on their own time, Moore said, and their skills easily translate.
“A lot of times, even when the record seems big, you’re concentrating on one specific issue. For example, we get a lot of competent substantial evidence claims, so you can focus down on what that one ruling was out of the transcript.”
And many younger attorneys relish the opportunity to sit first chair, said Eagleton, who is with the Tampa firm, Brannock & Humphries.
The bottom line, Moore said, is that by backfilling with Appellate Practice Section volunteers, GAL has been able to shift two of its own appellate lawyers to front-line work, enabling the program to take on an additional 475 children.
“We have had attorneys who reach out to the volunteer and ask, is there something I can do to help this child?” she said. “They just love their children. They really love what they’re doing. It’s really gratifying to reach out and match people up with these cases.”