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Florida Guardian ad Litem Program wins awards, pushes new training efforts

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GALThe Florida Statewide Guardian ad Litem Program has received two awards from Florida TaxWatch as it continues to expand recruiting and training for volunteer lawyers for its programs and other pro bono efforts.

TaxWatch has given Productivity Awards to GAL’s Free Florida CLE: LeGAL Support for Your Pro Bono Practice and for the new I Am for the Child Academy, a web-based training program for attorney and non-attorney GAL volunteers. It’s the third year in a row that the office has received TaxWatch awards.

The training resources are timely, GAL Office Executive Director Alan Abramowitz said, as despite — or perhaps because of — the coronavirus pandemic there’s been a surge in lawyer and nonlawyer volunteers this year.

“Even through we had a pandemic going on, we’ve added 1,700 volunteers,” Abramowitz said. “By the end of the year, this year of the pandemic — we’re still going through the process of training, getting certified, and representing and advocating — it will be 2,000 volunteers. That’s pretty impressive.”

One of the training resources for the new lawyer volunteers is Free Florida CLE, a YouTube channel launched by the office earlier this year (www.freefloridacle.com). Thomasina Moore, the GAL office’s director of Appeals and Pro Bono Initiatives, said Abramowitz set the goal of getting 1,500 views on the channel’s training videos in its first year.

The program, which began at the start of summer, has more than 5,000 views, and has 39 posted videos, with many more in the works.

Moore said the Appellate Practice Section, the Young Lawyers Division, and the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, among others, worked with the program to develop playlists of videos on specific topics. The videos carry CLE credit and lawyers can watch as many or as few videos on each playlist as they feel they need.

Topics covered include Appellate Practice for the Pro Bono Practitioner, FAWL in Love with GAL: Forging Their Future (on mentoring and otherwise helping teens and youngsters), Special Needs Advocacy, Trial Skills, Mental Health Education, and Domestic Relations Advocacy. There are also introductory videos and ones that answer commonly asked questions in implicit bias, expert testimony, and judicial notice.

New projects include the “Winning Your Appeal at Trial” series, with the assistance of the Appellate Practice Section.

“It’s going to be a five-hour training. It’s going to cover things that you need to do to preserve your record on appeal, when are motions for rehearing needed, what constitutional arguments need to be made at trial in order to preserve the record for appeal,” Moore said. Again, the topics will be individual videos so that lawyers can view as many or as few as they need and on their own schedule.

“We’re also working right now with the Florida Defense Lawyers Association. They’re going to do a playlist for us. It’s going to cover a broad spectrum of trial work. We’ve asked for mediation training to be in there,” she continued. “And then also client relations…. We’re really excited about that. They’ve wholeheartedly embraced the concept of doing videos for us.”

Finally, the Haitian Bar Association in Miami, using a YLD grant, is doing training on interacting with the South Florida Haitian community.

“This will be available to any GAL on how to deal with issues that are unique to that community,” Moore said. “It bolsters the community-based concept.”

The program is always looking for suggestions for new topics to include on the channel.

The video training is aimed at more than just GAL volunteers.

Moore said that Abramowitz expressed the philosophy that if the program provided CLE that was generally useful for lawyers, particularly those doing pro bono, then it also would produce more GAL volunteers.

She recounted that an appellate lawyer recently contacted her about finding some needed CLE and after being directed to the FloridaFreeCLE site, the attorney wound up volunteering as a guardian.

“We did want to make it something that is useful for anyone,” Moore said.

That’s also the goal of the new I Am for the Child Academy. Abramowitz said it provides online training for volunteers who can’t get to classroom sessions — something particularly useful in rural areas.

The program is for both attorneys and non-attorneys, is publicly available, and also free. Volunteers can register if they want a certificate after completing the training, but it’s not required, Abramowitz said.

“What we find is most of the stuff we train on, we want everyone to know,” he said. “Studies show the better trained attorneys you have, the better outcomes you have. Children appear in every court. They may be in criminal court as victims, they could be in delinquency, dependency, family law. You name the court, there’s likely to be a child there.

“We really want to emphasize not only how to work with children but all the issues involving children such as dependency, substance abuse, homelessness, mental-health issues. These are issues that attorneys need to know about because their clients have these issues and if they have clients, the clients have children.”

The Florida Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office, in addition to the training and main GAL program, has other efforts to help lawyers.

The Defending Best Interests Project lines up volunteer attorneys to represent children in appeals. And FAWL in Love with GAL works with the Florida Association for Women Lawyers to connect attorneys with teenage girls who need mentoring.

For more information about the Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office or to volunteer, go to https://guardianadlitem.org/.

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