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Bump in funding should provide a GAL for every child who needs one

Associate Editor Regular News

Bump in funding should provide a GAL for every child who needs one

Megan E. Davis

Associate Editor

While Florida law dictates that courts appoint a guardian ad litem to every abused, abandoned, or neglected child, the mandate has gone unmet for decades.

Alan Abramowitz Finally, that’s about to change.

In December 2012, the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program served about 70 percent of children in the dependency system.

With limited resources, the program was forced to “triage” cases, providing GALs to those deemed most in need.

With the help of a $6.1 million funding increase included in the recently released Senate and House budget proposals, the program hopes to provide GALs to all children in need of one, said Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the agency.

“This will bring us to the point where every child has that advocate being a voice for them so we can get better outcomes for children,” he said. “We anticipate that next year will be the last year to get to 100 percent.”

At the same time, the program plans to celebrate its 10,000th volunteer along with its 35th anniversary. Abramowitz credits support from the governor and Legislature for helping move the program forward.

“They’ve heard our volunteers in the field and listened to children and realized how important this program is,” he said.

About 80 percent of children in the dependency system now have GALs, due to an overhaul of the agency’s structure, which expands the use of volunteers.

Under the program’s old model, paid staff managed large caseloads of about 45 dependent children.

Rather than caseloads of children, paid staff now supervise about 38 volunteers each, who in turn represent close to 80 children.

At last count, more than 9,000 volunteers served the program.

The model is both “more effective and efficient,” Abramowitz said.

“You have one volunteer with two children who knows them better than anybody, so they can develop that trust, know the child’s needs, and make sure they’re met,” he said.

“The court will understand that these recommendations are from someone who knows the child well and is independent, unbiased, and has no interest in the case except the child.”

Miranda Phillips, 21, of St. Petersburg, was assigned a GAL when she went into foster care at age 12.

“Even though she’s not technically my GAL anymore, I still talk to her,” she said. “She’s one of the only people who was there through the whole thing. Caseworkers change and houses change, so it’s like having someone stable who knows everything about you and isn’t going to leave.”

Phillips said her GAL helped in ways no one else could.

“If you need help and no one else is listening, they’re going to listen and they’re going to take it to the judge,” she said. “They help you have a voice.”

As both an attorney and a GAL volunteer, Steve Uhlfelder of Tallahassee said the program safeguards the rights of children.

“I think a strong guardian can make sure the interest of the child is fully appreciated and protected,” said Uhlfelder, a former Bar Board of Governors member. “I really encourage lawyers to get involved with the program.”

As a volunteer, he helped make sure a neglected child’s needs were meet.

“Now he’s in a good foster home, and I’m trying to work to make sure the best place for him to go will be determined by the court,” Uhlfelder said.

As a GAL volunteer, Sue Schultz of Lakeland said she also embraces the opportunity to make sure children’s needs are met — whether reuniting siblings split up in the foster system or stopping mandatory visits between a boy and the father who molested him.

“Every child needs someone who isn’t part of the system,” she said. “It’s easier for me to talk to foster parents and parents, and it’s certainly easier for me to talk to children.”

Fourth Circuit Judge David Gooding said he finds the insight GALs bring to dependency cases invaluable.

“I’ve been alerted by a GAL volunteer when a child had a 106- degree temperature and the mother didn’t get the medicine for the child that she needed,” he said. “The GAL brought it to my attention, and I brought it into court and got the problem solved.”

In other cases, Gooding said GALs have also alerted him to the need for dental work or eyeglasses for dependent children.

“I can tell you if the GAL volunteers weren’t here, I’d probably quit,” he said. “I believe every child involved in the legal process should have one.”

Schultz said she looks forward to the day when 100 percent of children in the dependency system have a GAL.

“When the program started, it was only the worst cases that got guardians, so if it can be all kids, that will really kind of be a miracle almost,” Schultz said.