On Thursday, February 9, 2012, the Florida Guardian ad Litem Foundation hosted their annual Guardian ad Litem Day advocacy event at the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida.
Guardian ad Litem Day brings volunteers, members of the community and legislators together to discuss and expand awareness of the needs of Florida's dependent children as well as honor the achievements of the program.
The Second Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program was proud to attend and many of our staff, volunteers and community supporters were present. The day provided an excellent opportunity for our local Big Bend guardian ad litem community to meet and interact not only with each other but also with those doing great work statewide. Along with volunteers from other circuits, we took turns staffing a table in the main lobby of the Capitol welcoming guests and providing public outreach. Outreach for the day was also provided by us live on Twitter.
The morning started on the twenty-second floor of the Capitol with a light continental breakfast. Participants were invited to sign-in, mingle and receive copies of the 2012 Legislative Handbook, a guide to discussing the issues with members of the legislature, and the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program "A Voice Heard" 2012 Status Report. The goal of the "A Voice Heard" initiative is to gain a better understanding of Florida's foster youth expectations and experiences with their guardian ad litem volunteer.
Officially kicking off Guardian ad Litem Day 2012 was Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office Executive Director Alan Abramowitz. Welcoming everyone who was there so far—many more participants and guests would arrive as the day progressed—Abramowitz provided an update on the program's outstanding $3.9 million Legislative Budget Request.
Sought in order to hire additional volunteer supervisors and volunteer recruiters on private contract, these funds would provide the program with additional flexibility to engage and sustain volunteer recruitment, growth and retention. Abramowitz explained that this is but one part of the strategy to provide a guardian ad litem to all of Florida's dependent children by June 30, 2018 as part of the Campaign for 10,000 Voices announced last month.
Finishing his opening remarks, Abramowitz encouraged those having conferences with legislators and their aides and reminded everyone of the four key legislative events scheduled. On the north side of the complex, the Florida House of Representatives were holding normal session in their chamber from 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM. On the south side, three committees of the Florida Senate were holding meetings: the Budget Senate Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs, and the Senate Committee on Judiciary.
Complete documentation is available for the House session and Senate committee meetings held on Thursday, February 9, 2012.
As noontime approached, attendees started returning to the twenty-second floor for the keynote speakers. The first speaker was Mag McGauley, former Board Chair of the Florida Guardian ad Litem Foundation. After opening the event, making a few remarks and thanking Bonnie Marmor, Board Chair of the Florida Guardian ad Litem Foundation, McGauley introduced the next speaker.
Jane Munroe, Chief Executive Officer of the Florida Guardian ad Litem Foundation, spoke of the Foundation's goals and mission saying that one key is "communication, communication, communication." Munroe also said that she wants to open the door to people and organizations to help meet that mission. Concluding her remarks, Munroe introduced Alan Abramowitz.
Abramowitz discussed three key topics during his keynote speech. He first spoke of the "I Am for the Child" public awareness campaign launched late last year by the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association. The purpose of the campaign is to create a national movement behind the goal of providing a volunteer guardian ad litem to represent the best interests of all dependent children.
Next, Abramowitz discussed the Department of Children and Families new Partners for Promise program. He talked about how the program seeks to form partnerships in the community and why the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program was one of the first supporting partners. Before introducing the next speaker, Abramowitz concluded his remarks by talking about the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program 2012 Status Report and "A Voice Heard" initiative, speaking very highly of the results of the initiative, which sought direct feedback from the beneficiaries of the program.
Next on stage was David Wilkins, Secretary of the Department of Children and Families. Secretary Wilkins spoke of the close relationship between his agency and guardian ad litem programs. He said that both organizations' only desire is to help kids and that they work together to achieve their common goals. Wilkins went on to say that with a guardian ad litem involved, the dependency process works better—expedited but thought through. "Children know and trust you," said Wilkins speaking of guardians ad litem.
Wilkins continued his remarks by highlighting a number of changes the Department of Children and Families is making to improve the lives of children statewide. He said that engaging the guardian ad litem community is an important way to help children and that we all have to "fight the system" to do what is best for them. Concluding his remarks, Wilkins talked about a bill in the legislature that would better empower Child Protective Investigators and spoke of needing to "drill down to family dynamics" to find out how to best help families.
Following Secretary Wilkins' speech, Alan Abramowitz returned to the stage to introduce the next and very special speaker, Gaby Edouard. As a former foster youth, Edouard knows firsthand the benefits of a volunteer guardian ad litem and he spoke to the crowd about his personal experiences. Edouard said that without a mother and father, his life path eventually led to legal troubles. With the help of his guardian ad litem, Leslie Diver, also in attendance, Edouard was able to resolve his court situation and become a United States citizen. He is currently gainfully employed and attending college courses.
Edouard said that he did not wish to depend on anyone initially. After meeting Diver, he realized that she was the first person who cared about his well-being in a long time. Edouard said that he is fortunate to have had a guardian ad litem in his life and that she taught him how to make good decisions. He also pointed out how he appreciated even the small things during visits, citing listening to music in Diver's vehicle as an example.
In a heartwarming conclusion to his story, Edouard told the crowd that after finishing her guardian ad litem duties with him, Diver became his mother through adoption. Now that he has an education, Edouard says that he wants to return the gifts he has received by helping others. He spoke of a desire to return to his birthplace of Haiti to help the children there and affect positive change nationwide. At the conclusion of his remarks, Edouard received a thunderous round of applause and standing ovation from all in attendance.
Ending the keynote event, Mag McGauley thanked all of the speakers and guests for attending and invited everyone to enjoy the luncheon provided by Catering by Judy before proceeding to their legislative conferences or remaining Senate committee meetings. The luncheon consisted of salad, marinated chicken breasts, rice pilaf, green beans, rolls and yellow cake.
As people queued for and made their way through the buffet, the keynote speakers and guests made their way around the room, shaking hands and talking. Special guests, staff, volunteers and community supporters all had a chance to meet, introduce colleagues, pose for photographs and discuss the issues in this inviting setting. The atmosphere was very upbeat and everyone was clearly enjoying this unique chance to engage together in one place.
The luncheon began to thin out as participants went downstairs for the legislative conferences and sessions. In a matter of hours, Guardian ad Litem Day 2012 would draw to a close. By every account, this year's events including the pre-GAL Day training activities at the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee were a success. Thank you to everyone who came and took part in this fun and important event.
Be sure to check out the entire Guardian ad Litem Day 2012 photograph set on Flickr and follow us on Twitter for news and updates.
Special thanks to Claire Smith of Tallahassee for the loan of her camera equipment.
CORRECTION 2012-02-13: This article previously identified Bonnie Marmor incorrectly as Shara Weaver. Our apologies for the error.