Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office’s partnership with FAWL is paying dividends for older youth in care
The attorney-mentors assist youth when transitioning from out-of-home care to independence and preparing for their next chapter, including work, college, finances, and relationships'
For attorney Jennifer P. Lawson, getting her nails done is not just updating her polish. For this “FAWL in Love with GAL” mentor, it is time she gets together with her mentee, 21-year-old Dina Santos, to get an update on her life.
“It’s a tradition we have created. We meet, get our nails done, and she lets me know what’s going on and asks me for my input and guidance. It’s always one of the best hours of the day for me,” said Lawson, a partner in the commercial litigation practice of Smith, Gambrell & Russell in Jacksonville. “I remember not having a clue at her age, and I had a good support system. I couldn’t imagine not having that support system and resources. Mentoring gives me the opportunity to be that resource for someone.”
FAWL in Love with GAL was created through a partnership between the Florida Association of Women Lawyers (FAWL) and the Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office in 2019. It matches pro bono attorneys with older youth in care. The attorney-mentors assist youth when transitioning from out-of-home care to independence and preparing for their next chapter, including work, college, finances, and relationships. Over 45 mentors throughout the state work with the initiative, many of them members of FAWL.
Lawson and Santos were paired in 2019 when the initiative launched. When Lawson met Santos, Santos was going through a very difficult time. She and her four younger siblings were living with an older brother. However, the older brother was not able to care for them. Ultimately, the siblings were separated in foster care, and Dina, having just turned 18, was placed in independent living.
“I was really going through it, and then I met Ms. Jenn. First, I thought, I don’t have time for this. But she was just totally different. She was just there for me and really let me direct things. I wasn’t used to that,” said Santos. “I know she is always a text or call away; no matter what, she answers. She never gives up.”
Lawson said giving up was not an option. She knew, like many children in care, Santos had experienced trauma and that adults in her life had previously let her down. One of her most important roles was to be a trusting adult to whom Dina could turn.
“I was a listener. I let her tell her story over time and learned her language. I was like, ‘let me know what you need,’ and through the years, she has,” said Lawson.
Just this year, Lawson assisted Santos with getting a new place to live, going over the lease with her, and helping her move in. She also bought her inspirational quotes décor items, which Santos put all around her apartment. Santos says seeing them every day reminds her that she is not alone.
The relationship that Lawson and Santos have developed is the main goal of FAWL of Love GAL. Studies show that youth who have a mentor have better financial, social, and educational outcomes. That is especially true for youth in the dependency system, who are at a higher risk of dropping out of school, using illegal substances, and becoming human trafficking victims.
“We hear time and time again from current and former youth in care how important having a trusting, positive adult in their life is. It really can make all the difference,” said Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office Executive Director Dennis W. Moore. “We are proud of the Florida legal community stepping up to be those mentors and adults.”
“We recognize the importance of helping these youth. They need as much support as possible to have better futures. We can use our knowledge and experience to assist them as they become adults and really make a difference,” said FAWL President Donna Eng.
It has made quite a difference. Santos credits Lawson, as well as a few other mentors, including her Guardian ad Litem Volunteer Advocate Kathy Grimsley, for where she is today – a community college student in Jacksonville looking to transfer to Florida State University in the fall and continue on to law school to follow in Lawson’s footsteps.
“Ms. Jenn was so excited to help me come up with a game plan when I told her what I wanted to do. That’s what she does. She gives me support and guidance. And she also holds me accountable, which I need,” said Santos.
The Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office is dedicated to giving the children it represents what they need. Partnering with the legal community is an important part of that. The office provides support for all attorneys who get involved.
Besides the FAWL in Love with GAL mentoring initiative, the office offers a multitude of other opportunities for attorneys to get involved, including working as co-counsel as an Independent Living Pro Bono Guardian ad Litem Attorney and writing answer briefs with the Defending Best Interests initiative. All have the same goal – to improve the outcomes for dependent youth.
Santos was recently in Tallahassee to participate in a panel discussion on independent living and transition services for youth in the Florida foster care system during a Senate Committee on Children, Families, and Elder Affairs meeting. She wants to help ease the transition for youth who are going through the same thing she is. She says FAWL in Love with GAL is a way to do that.
Lawson says the attorney also benefits from the experience.
“Being a human being is hard enough, and it’s even harder for these youth who have been through so much. If I can make one day better, that is a win,” said Lawson. “Through the years, I have watched Dina grow into a mature young woman. I have watched her stumble and get back up. I have been there for her and been a part of it. It has been one of the most rewarding things I have done.”
Lawson looks forward to continuing to mentor Santos, who has become like family to her. Santos says that with her support system and Lawson by her side, she feels her future is full of possibilities. Lawson and Santos encourage other attorneys to get involved.
“Sometimes a person just needs one person in their corner, that stable support, and that is what a mentor gives us,” said Santos. “It sounds cliché, but you can be the difference in someone’s life. Ms. Jenn was mine.”
For more information on the Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office, available pro bono opportunities, and how to get involved, visit www.guardianadlitem.org/pro-bono.