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Appellate pro bono attorneys step up to defend children

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The Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office initiative has served more than 1,000 dependent children on appeal

GAL OfficeWhen the Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office teamed up with members of the Appellate Practice Section in 2017  to launch Defending Best Interests (DBI), an initiative in which pro bono attorneys write answer briefs defending the child’s best interests in termination of parental rights appeals, neither entity imagined how many children would be assisted.

As of February, pro bono appellate attorneys have represented more than 1,000 dependent children on appeal, helping remove barriers to their permanency in safe and loving homes.

“The success of this collaboration highlights the dedication of The Florida Bar members to pro bono service and the determination of the Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office to partner with pro bono attorneys to provide children in the child welfare system with the highest-quality, independent legal representation,” said Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office Interim Executive Director Dennis Moore.

“When you volunteer your time and skills to DBI, you are not just writing a brief. You are protecting a child, giving them a voice in the appellate process, and advocating for them to have a better future,” said Thomasina Moore, who created the program when she was director of Appeals and Pro Bono Operations for the Statewide Guardian Ad Litem Office.

Moore, now of counsel with GrayRobinson, is amazed by how far the initiative has come. When created, she hoped pro bono attorneys would handle 25 briefs a year. Five and a half years in, pro bono attorneys have handled over 560 cases and donated nearly 12,000 hours, representing $3.6 million in in-kind contributions.

If there is an open appeal in a child’s case, that child cannot be adopted or find stability. The pro bono counsel working with DBI is essential to moving the child toward permanency.

Pro bono attorneys who volunteer their time with DBI receive legal and technical support from the Guardian ad Litem Office, which continues to attract attorneys to this kind of pro bono work.

Since its inception, DBI has earned recognition and passed multiple milestones. In 2018, the Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office won a Florida TaxWatch Productivity Award for the initiative. In February of 2022, the initiative reached a noteworthy milestone of more than 10,000 hours donated to the project by Florida attorneys.

“Attorneys can make a difference with this amazing project and know they are supported,” said Kimberly Berman, chair of the Appellate Practice Section Pro Bono Committee. “So many of our members have already dedicated numerous hours, and I know they will continue to do so.”

Sara Goldfarb, director of Pro Bono Operations for the Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office says this project has hit the sweet spot for pro bono work.

“The office identifies the cases best suited for pro bono attorneys so they can write the most impactful brief possible, advocating for the children we represent,” Goldfarb said. “The comprehensive support we provide enables attorneys to confidently take on these cases.”

Goldfarb looks forward to the continued growth of DBI and its service to Florida’s most vulnerable children as well as their other pro bono opportunities, which include mentoring and working as a guardian ad litem attorney.

“I feel attorneys often go to law school with the goal of doing good and making a difference. DBI and the other pro bono opportunities with the Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office are a way to do that,” said Moore. “I can’t wait to see what the office and its pro bono partners accomplish next.”

To learn more about how attorneys can get involved and make a difference in the lives of children, email [email protected].

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