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Volunteer and pro bono opportunities for attorneys with the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program

Special to the News Columns

A project of The Florida Bar Wm. Reece Smith, Jr., Leadership Academy, Class IX

Leadership AcademyThere are more than 30,000 abused, abandoned, and neglected children under the jurisdiction of Florida’s juvenile dependency courts. This number is difficult to fathom given the issues at stake and many wonder what they can do to help. Becoming a volunteer Guardian ad Litem or a pro bono attorney for the Guardian ad Litem Program is an excellent opportunity for Florida attorneys to make a tangible difference in the life of these children. In fact, the investigation and advocacy skills, among other skills, attorneys and those generally trained in the law possess are invaluable tools for volunteer and pro bono attorney guardian ad litems.

Becoming a Volunteer Guardian ad Litem

GALIn Florida, when a child is abused, abandoned, or neglected and cannot remain at home in a healthy and safe environment, the child is removed from that home and a case is opened. The court appoints a local guardian ad litem (GAL) to the file, who is responsible for representing the best interest of the child. The Florida GAL program uses a team approach in their representation of children. In addition to the court-appointed GAL, the Florida GAL program leans on community volunteer guardian ad litems, child advocate managers (CAM), and GAL program attorneys. GAL volunteers bring a community-based, common sense approach to children’s cases. They are supervised and supported by child advocate managers who work for the GAL program. GAL program attorneys provide essential legal counsel, attend hearings and depositions, negotiate outside of the courtroom, and take on appeals. The unique perspective and expertise of each team member complements the others and all are critical in advocating for the best interests of children.

Volunteer GALs are critical advocates for these children. Their advocacy assists the court in making decisions that have a long-lasting impact on the life of each child, including what home a child will be placed in permanently — a decision that is typically made within one year of removal from the problematic home — and whether and to what extent additional services will be needed to address any physical, emotional, and/or educational needs of the child. GALs regularly visit with their assigned children in order to understand their circumstances, wishes, and needs, and to explain the process in a way the children can understand. GALs give children a voice and help them find their own.

While the GAL program does provide GAL program attorneys, Florida attorneys make incredible guardian ad litem community volunteers due to their law school training and advocacy experience — both of which make an important difference for the child. GAL volunteers advocate for the best interest of the child not only in court, but in all aspects of their day-to-day lives, including at their daycares or schools, in their out-of-home placements (i.e., family relative placements, foster homes, or group homes), with the dependency system staff, with therapists and doctors, and with the child’s case manager.

Class IX Spotlight on Gemma Torcivia

Gemma Torcivia

Gemma Torcivia

Gemma Torcivia, a Class IX Fellow in The Florida Bar Wm. Reece Smith, Jr., Leadership Academy, initially became a volunteer guardian ad litem while an undergraduate at the University of Florida and later joined the 11th Circuit as a volunteer GAL where she continues to serve. As an undergraduate, Torcivia was an eager and hardworking advocate for the children’s best interests, but as an attorney she is a much better equipped, skilled, and effective volunteer GAL.

Most Florida GAL programs only require a one-year commitment from their volunteer GALs, with a minimum of one visit per month with the child (or children) the volunteer is assigned to. Many attorneys, like Torcivia, choose to stay on once they see first-hand the immediate and positive impact their zealous and committed advocacy has on the lives of the children. In 2016, Torcivia was assigned as a volunteer GAL to a young man in the 11th Circuit, and has remained on his case for the past five years. The young man has since turned 18, and has therefore “aged out” of the system and transitioned into “independent living;” however, she continues to provide support and mentorship to him to this day in her role as a volunteer GAL. As his volunteer GAL, not only does Torcivia advocate for his best interest in court, but she serves as a mentor providing guidance as he considers career options, housing options and other important life decisions. Most cases do not last as long as Torcivia’s case, and there are many opportunities for attorneys to provide meaningful service to one or more children during their one-year commitment as a volunteer GAL.

Pro Bono Opportunities for Attorneys with Guardian ad Litem

The GAL program also provides pro bono opportunities for attorneys. Effective legal advocacy for children’s best interests is crucial to ensure they reach permanency quickly, get the services they need, and have a voice in court. However you choose to give a voice to Florida’s most vulnerable children — whether as a volunteer or through the pro bono program — the GAL program will support you. The program has more than 170 attorneys who can answer questions and provide practice aids for pro bono attorneys, such as templates for motions and guidance on substantive law. Child advocate managers offer information to pro bono attorneys about local procedures and community resources. Pro bono attorneys also have access to free online training and CLE opportunities.

There are a wide variety of pro bono opportunities with the GAL program, including the following:

• Appeals: With the support of the GAL appellate team, pro bono attorneys defend the child’s best interest during the appeals process by writing briefs.

• Transition to Independence: Pro bono attorneys mentor youth as they transition to independence as part of this pro bono partnership with Florida Association for Women Lawyers (“FAWL in love with GAL”).

• Support Survivors of Domestic Violence: The GAL program, the Young Lawyers Division, and community partners work together to provide legal resources to survivors of domestic violence. As part of the initiative, the project engages pro bono attorneys and provides free training and resources (“Stigma Free Community”).

• Volunteer Advocates: Pro bono attorneys work with youth representing them in various proceedings, such as dependency, immigration, and trusts. The program also accepts law students as interns.

To learn more about becoming a volunteer guardian ad litem or a GAL pro bono attorney, reach out to your local GAL program. For those unable to make an extended commitment, the GAL program always needs support for the children it serves as it provides them with back-to-school clothes and supplies, holiday meals and gifts, and special programs that can be sponsored by anyone, such as providing music classes for the children, kayaking trips, etc.

• You can learn more about becoming a volunteer GAL here.

• You can learn more about pro bono opportunities with GAL here.

• You can provide financial support to the GAL program and the children that it serves through the Florida Guardian ad Litem Foundation here.

Leadership Academy Fellows Akiesha Gilcrist Sainvil and Kelly Kibbey Smith edited this column.