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The April 2012 edition of the Florida Bar News features three articles about the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program, our mission and the current statewide initiatives.

The first article, "A volunteer willing to say 'I am for the child'", introduces the program and reaches out to attorneys encouraging them to volunteer their time.

The second article, "A vehicle for better advocacy", discusses the passage of SB 1960, which permits guardian ad litem volunteers to transport children in the program.

The third article, "'A Voice Heard'", talks about the "A Voice Heard" 2012 Status Report and the valuable information and lessons it contains.

The articles are presented below in case you missed them. Thank you to the Florida Bar for featuring our program with their membership!

A volunteer willing to say 'I am for the child'
By The Florida Bar

Sunday, April 1, 2012
Florida Bar News

To join 8,000 volunteer guardians ad litem in Florida, you must be willing to open up your heart to abused and neglected children. You must agree that it's a human rights issue that that foster child's voice needs to be heard. After listening to that child, you must help the judge in dependency court understand what's in the child's best interest.

Even though it is statutorily mandated that every abused and neglected child have a guardian ad litem, the reality is that 10,000 out of more than 32,000 foster children still have no voice in Florida's courts.

"These children have lots of needs. The studies have shown you get better outcomes with children when you have an advocate," said Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the statewide GAL program.

"What we're seeing is a force out there throughout the state that's willing to step forward. We need to reach out to them. That's why the whole 'I Am for the Child' campaign is really there to allow people to do what in their heart they want to do, and that is to be there for a child who has no one."

Amy Goldin is one such GAL volunteer. She's a solo real estate law practitioner in Plantation and a mother of 17-year-old boy. She's also a guardian ad litem to a 17-year-old young woman with a 2-year-old child of her own. In her spare time, she is trying to raise money and recruit volunteers for the GAL program.

She views her mission as urgent.

"In Broward County alone, we have over 700 children who need a guardian ad litem," Goldin said. "It's very scary. We don't want to be one of those newspaper stories. I think it is a crisis."

Horrific stories of abused and neglected children, she said, "are down the street and in our neighborhoods."

When funding is tight for legal services, she said that's when the 501(c)(3)'s become even more important. She was in Tallahassee trying to raise $40,000 for one of 25 nonprofit charitable organizations where the money goes directly to the GAL program to help with training, volunteer recognition ceremonies, toys, summer camp fees, and anything else to help the children the GALs serve.

Besides searching for contributions of money, Goldin is looking for attorneys willing to volunteer as GALs.

"I worked at Carlton Fields in Tampa, so I know the pressure of hours," she said. "I go out and talk to attorneys in firms, and that's a big problem, the time constraint. Young people are eager to step in and help, but they feel the time pressure with billable hours. What I tell them is, 'Other than going to court—which is a time set—you can be very flexible with your time.'"

She visits her own GAL client after 5:30 on Fridays and on the weekends. Talking to her teachers, guidance counselors, and case workers is mostly done over the phone.

Goldin has found that judges try to be flexible.

"The judges always have listened to me and the program's advice. They want you to attend these hearings. If you say, 'I can't make it at 9 in the morning, because I have a conflict with another hearing,' they will try to work with you," Goldin said.

Employers do need to support the GAL leaving the office for those court hearings.

But, Goldin said: "I don't think people should be concerned this is going to be a second job, because it's not. And a lot of lawyers have specialty experience or backgrounds in immigration law or certain specific issues that we need help with. They may not want to be a GAL, but they are willing to help us out on specific cases. That's something we are interested in, as well."

"Everybody can do something, and there's something for everyone," Goldin said. "It's about the kids. It's about their human rights. They have a right to live. They have a right to prosper. They have a right to be hugged."

For more information, contact www.GuardianadLitem.org or call (866) 341-1425.

Copyright © 2012, The Florida Bar. All Rights Reserved.

A vehicle for better advocacy
By Jan Pudlow

Sunday, April 1, 2012
Florida Bar News

"My wife says she only learns what's going on with the kids when she's in the car. Otherwise they won't talk to her," Alan Abramowitz said with a laugh.

But as executive director of the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program, he considers allowing volunteers to transport kids in their cars a serious matter of safety for abused and neglected children.

Alan Abramowitz "A volunteer in California who works for us now said a child disclosed they were being raped in a foster home," Abramowitz said. "And she said, 'I never would have known that if I hadn't been alone with her in the car, and she trusted me.'

"My view is, safety is the primary reason. I think it protects kids. When they trust you, they will talk to you. And when they talk to you, they will disclose things. The second reason why is normalcy."

In a report dedicated to Sen. Nan Rich, D-Sunrise, one of the earliest supporters of the GAL program, Abramowitz said he agrees with recommendations to expand the Transportation Pilot Project of June 2011 to all circuits, because the pilot "has met the original goals intended of child safety, improved communications, a sense of normalcy, volunteer empowerment, and volunteer retention."

That follows the recommendations made by Jane Soltis, 2011 Child Advocate of the Year, who evaluated the pilot.

This year, legislation—SB 1960, in lines 268 to 272—recognizes the GAL Program's authority to transport children. However, no volunteer will ever be required or pressured to participate in transporting a child, and no judge can order it.

"I didn't want a situation where the volunteer didn't want to. They have to do it from their own hearts. You're not a lesser volunteer because you don't want to do it," Abramowitz said. "Is it in the best interest of the child? Yes."

He tells the story of a volunteer GAL in the Fifth Judicial Circuit who has an autistic child living in a group home who wasn't able to get out much.

"He's been taking the kid to a park a lot, four hours at a time. The kid is an older kid. His therapist says this kid is like a new kid," Abramowitz said.

"The volunteer sent me a video of the kid climbing a tree. It's very emotional to see what's happening out there, when these children have someone. And you need to transport them to be able to do these things."

Abramowitz is a GAL for a 17-year-old college student, who lives in a group home where the big entertainment offering is G-rated movies.

"I wanted him to be able to date. He's in a group home. It's a little difficult. That's all I thought about when I was 17," Abramowitz said.

The young man loves music, and hinted he would love to go to a concert.

Abramowitz brought that up at a staffing, and a 501(c)(3) paid for the tickets.

"If I'm a volunteer, I can go to them for help so the child can feel normal. Sometimes, it's a ticket to something; it could be a prom dress or membership in a club.

"We brought it up, and everyone was receptive to it. I think the advocacy for this child was getting everyone around the table and saying, 'Let's let him be a normal kid.' And everyone agreed."

So Abramowitz picked up his kid in his car, they grabbed lunch, and went to the concert at Tallahassee's civic center.

"He loved it," Abramowitz said. "I didn't understand one word during the concert because it was so loud, but I enjoyed watching him have his first concert experience. It really gave him a typical normal teenage experience that he will never forget."

Copyright © 2012, The Florida Bar. All Rights Reserved.

'A Voice Heard'
By Jan Pudlow

Sunday, April 1, 2012
Florida Bar News

Throwing a birthday party for a girl who's never had one before.

Cheering from the stands as a boy scores in a basketball game.

Laughing at a child's jokes.

Helping a teen get a driver's license.

Showing a kindergartner how to tie her shoelaces.

Taking a foster kid from a group home to a park, just to listen.

During his two decades of advocating for children, Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program, said he has learned that the most important skill in child advocacy is listening.

'I am for the child who is afraid to go home.' "The best person to fight for their child is the parent. Well, in these situations, there's no parent to do it. What makes a parent good? They care about the child. They do homework with the child. They help the child. They are role models for the child. And they listen to the child. We want guardians ad litem to do the same thing," Abramowitz said.

Clearly, the role of a guardian ad litem has expanded beyond the courtroom as an advocate for children in dependency court. As Abramowitz explained, in 1997, when the GAL program was under the court, the court took the position that GAL volunteers were prohibited from providing services and were focused on meeting the courts' needs.

"I'm interested in the child. And as we focus on the child, we'll become better advocates for the court," Abramowitz said. "I'm treating it not as a direct line to the court, but a better line to the child so we can do a better job."

As GAL volunteer Bonnie Marmor, who has a Ph.D. in strategic planning, writes in this year's status report: "The GAL volunteer often becomes a role model, a mentor, an educational surrogate, a friend, a confidant, and most important, a consistent caring person on whom the child(ren) can rely."

Marmor led a project in six circuits where GAL volunteers asked their clients—152 elementary, middle-school, high-school, and aged-out foster kids—questions about their GAL experiences, with the goals of helping volunteers gain a better understanding of the children they represent and allowing foster children to advise and guide the direction of the program.

"It makes me realize how important our corps of volunteers is. Although I may have my own cases, others have far more serious issues than I have," Marmor said. "There are volunteers who are so special, so dedicated, so committed to making sure that the right things are done for the right reason."

"A Voice Heard"—the simple, poignant title of the report—was supplied by former foster youth Brian Williams, recently accepted into the Fostering Achievement Fellowship Program at Tallahassee Community College.

Here's a sampling of those voices heard:

What is the most important thing I do to help you?

"You helped me…get new glasses when I couldn't see the board," answered one K-5 student.

"(You) help me understand and answer questions I have about why my dad and brother and mom are the way they are," answered a middle-school student.

"It's already been done…I am aging out with a life, a job, and a new family," answers a high-school student.

If there was one thing you could wish for today, what would it be?

"I already got my wish…to come home," an 11-year-old happily reported.

What other things would you like me to do for you?

"I want you to be able to see me forever, or at least until I get married," a 13-year-old told her GAL.

Why do you think I come to see you?

"To make sure I don't get hurt," a K-5 child told the GAL.

"Because you think I am a real neat kid—you tell me that a lot," another child said.

If you were a GAL, is there anything special you would do for the person you visit?

One 17-year-old said she'd "ensure that the kids got to keep their pets." When police first arrived at her home, her precious declawed Himalayan cat escaped through an open door and the girl was not allowed to look for the cat that she feared would not survive outside. After 10 months, the girl is still mourning the loss of her pet, said her GAL volunteer.

What would you have liked your GAL to do that he or she did not do?

"It would have been nice if my GAL could have transported me. If so, I wouldn't have missed my aunt's memorial service. I asked my GAL to take me that Sunday, but she said she would have liked to but she couldn't because she wasn't allowed to transport. It was the weekend and the group home ran on what they called a 'skeleton crew,' so I missed the memorial service. I just always knew that my GAL would have done things like that for me if she had been allowed to."

"Stay in my life instead of just disappearing," said a former foster youth, ages 18–23.

Copyright © 2012, The Florida Bar. All Rights Reserved.

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