The hub of information for the Second Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program, our blog contains posts with announcements, news and events, articles, periodicals and additions or updates to our website.

This page contains published posts from the January 2013 archive sorted chronologically with the newest at the top.

Using Scorecards to Promote Accountability in Advocacy

Continuing his recent public awareness campaign via various publications, Florida Guardian ad Litem Program Executive Director Alan Abramowitz had an article published in the January 2013 edition of the Judges' Page newsletter by National CASA.

In his article, Abramowitz "explains how the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program is assessing the program's overall effectiveness and quantifying the influence that GAL volunteers can have on improving child welfare outcomes using a guardian ad litem scorecard."

You can read the entire article on the National CASA website or below.

Using Scorecards to Promote Accountability in Advocacy
By Alan Abramowitz

January 2013
Judges' Page Newsletter

Florida's guardian ad litem (GAL) advocacy team comprises 539 staff members, more than 8,000 volunteer advocates and more than 20 nonprofit organizations that pursue safety, permanency and well-being for children through a public/private partnership model.* With a focus on transparency and accountability for limited public resources, the program was recognized in 2012 as a state Prudential-Davis Productivity Eagle Award winner for "streamlining efficiencies to focus on commitment to children." This award highlighted our programs' use of volunteer resources to make the program more efficient and effective. The Florida Guardian ad Litem Program is a member of the National CASA Association.

When Florida Governor Rick Scott took office in January 2010, he brought with him the tools of for-profit hospital management, including the use of scorecards used to track performance on key indicators and link strategic direction to operational tactics. Scott challenged executive agencies to develop their own scorecards not only for strategic management, but also as a communication tool for informing the public and ensuring transparency and accountability with tax dollars. The GAL program's scorecard process grew out of this challenge; it is a natural extension of the program's commitment to accountability not just for children, but also for judges, taxpayers and volunteers.

The first step in building the scorecard was the development of valid and reliable measures. In this effort, we engaged many partners: the state child welfare agency, volunteers, program staff, advocates and staff from the legislature and the governor's office. Yet, the most important voices came from the youth we serve through our "A Voice Heard" initiative. Using a statewide survey of children and teens in the child welfare system, the GAL program identified critical concerns that young people feel are important. Through these voices, we learned that four issues were of paramount concern:

  • Personal Interest: Caring, concern and emotional support
  • Advocacy: Judicial, educational and situational
  • Communication: Talking, listening and understanding
  • Trust: Responsiveness, honesty and reliability

The result was a scorecard that focuses on a causal relationship between two critical components:

  1. Program effectiveness measures that are within the control of the GAL program staff and volunteers. These are measures include recruitment, retention and administration of the program and have a direct impact on child representation.
  2. Child welfare outcome measures. These are important measures that the GAL program can influence. There are national studies demonstrating that children have better outcomes when a volunteer child advocate is assigned to their cases.

Florida's GAL scorecard was implemented in June 2012. It is now produced monthly and highlighted on the program's website. It tracks 14 measures for each of the state's 20 judicial circuits, and gives an aggregate score (rank) to each circuit based on performance. Two examples of scorecard measures that focus on program effectiveness are:

  • Percentage of Volunteers Certified as Educational Advocates: A cornerstone belief of the GAL program is that successful educational advocacy equates to better child outcomes. Volunteers are therefore encouraged to become trained educational advocates. By tracking the percentage of volunteers who are trained as educational advocates, the program spotlights the "Advocacy" element of the "A Voice Heard" initiative. Acquiring these educational advocacy skills through training allows volunteer advocates to enhance their overall effectiveness in critical educational, judicial and best interest situations.
  • Percentage of Appointed Children Assigned to Volunteers: This measure reflects the efficiency of the GAL program in recruiting, training and supporting certified volunteers. It focuses on the "A Voice Heard" initiative response elements relating to "Personal Interest." Personal interest may not exist when a child does not have a volunteer child advocate assigned to him to care, show concern and give emotional support. This measure also closely correlates to the "A Voice Heard" initiative element of "Trust," which highlights responsiveness and reliability.

The guardian ad litem scorecard is designed to be an evolving tool to assess the program's overall effectiveness and to quantify the influence that volunteer advocates can have on improving child welfare outcomes. Through the use of this scorecard, we aim to:

  • Increase GAL program child representation and advocacy effectiveness. This directly supports comments and concerns from children who participated in the statewide survey "A Voice Heard" initiative
  • Improve overall child welfare outcomes for dependent children

For a detailed discussion of the measures and their use, go to [this document].

The scorecard will also provide the GAL program leadership team with a framework to identify and define opportunities for improvement.

Every day, judges make life-changing decisions affecting children, often basing those decisions on the recommendation of a guardian ad litem volunteer. Use of the GAL scorecard can only strengthen our capacity to advise, because if we do this right, no one knows the child better than a GAL volunteer.

* National CASA Editor's note: CASA programs are referred to as guardian ad litem (GAL) programs in some states, including Florida.

Author biography

Alan Abramowitz is the executive director of the Florida State Guardian ad Litem Program. Previous experiences include serving as state director of child welfare, regional director and chief legal counsel for the Florida Department of Children and Families, and working as assistant general counsel for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.

Abramowitz holds a juris doctorate from Florida State University, and master's degrees in public administration and sociology and a bachelor's degree in psychology from Kansas State University.

Abramowitz's volunteer service includes working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Kenya and serving in the Peace Corps in Thailand.

Court Reports Documentation for Volunteers Available

A legal requirement for guardians ad litem, court reports provide judges with crucial information needed to prepare decisions in cases.

In order to assist volunteer guardians ad litem, we have added seven educational documents with helpful information on this important process as well as tips on effective report writing.

Update
2014-09-04: the court reports packet is now in the Guardians ad Litem topic of continuing education

New Event: Play Therapy 101

We regularly host a variety of events to provide community outreach, raise awareness of our program, recruit new volunteers, fund raise and furnish training to our volunteer guardians ad litem. The following continuing education event was recently added to our calendar.

Play Therapy 101
Participants will learn the importance of play for a child's development; how play therapy differs from traditional cognitive behavioral therapy/talk therapies; when it is appropriate to recommend a child to play therapy; and how to find a play therapist.

Abramowitz Editorial on Normalcy and SB 164

On Thursday, January 10, 2013, Florida Guardian ad Litem Program Executive Director Alan Abramowitz had an editorial published in the Bradenton Herald.

Abramowitz's article "Ask the GAL: What children in foster care need is parenting" discusses normalcy as well as Senate Bill 164.

You can read the complete text of Abramowitz's article in case you missed it.

Ask the GAL: What children in foster care need is parenting
By Alan Abramowitz / Special to the Herald

Thursday, January 10, 2013
Bradenton Herald

As the executive director of the statewide Guardian ad Litem Program, I talk to many children and teenagers who live in foster and group homes. It is not unusual for these conversations to center around their complaints about a lack of a normal life.

Moving from school to school, not being allowed to play school sports, not being able to use the phone or participate in school trips are just of the few comments I regularly hear. For years, child advocates have fought to correct these problems by promoting the concept of "normalcy;" it is something we have all been striving to provide for children who, through no fault of their own, end up in foster care.

A few years ago, one of my roles as state director of child welfare was to be the "normalcy czar." The secretary assigned me to answer questions from foster parents, shelters, group homes, children in foster care, providers, case managers and the public about what was "normal" for a child in foster care, and what activities they should be allowed to do. Every answer had to be carefully crafted to ensure that each child was treated as an individual.

Children and teens learn to be independent by participating in extracurricular, enrichment and social activities. They venture out on their own and make decisions that are supported by their parents. They will inevitably make mistakes, but their parents still care for them and support them, regardless.

Needless to say, despite our best efforts to promote "normalcy," we still hear the stories from children in foster care who aren't allowed to go to the beach, have a sleepover, go trick or treating, or play high school sports.

The more I think about this issue, the more I am certain that achieving "normalcy" is not and has never been the core issue. The lack of "normalcy" is the symptom of what truly has been wrong with foster care as we know it.

The Department of Children and Families is now pursuing a major culture shift through an initiative called the Quality Parenting Initiative. This program maintains that the true answer to the need for "normalcy" lies in ensuring that there is parenting for children in foster care. We trust foster parents to care for our dependent children 24/7, yet they have not legislatively or in reality been granted the authority to make day-to-day decisions for their foster child, without a bureaucracy interfering with decision-making.

Tanya Wilkins, wife of Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins, chairs a DCF committee called Fostering Florida's Future, which focuses on retention and recruitment of foster parents. She often says foster parents need "Permission to Parent."

Her comments made sense, but only recently when talking with children did it really sink in what this means to children who miss their parents, their families and other caregivers. Children in foster care really need someone to be there for them giving direction in their life. They have a right to be parented — not by a nameless, faceless group of case workers and lawyers, but by a loving, caring parent who can help them make mature decisions and guide them toward responsible adulthood.

There is no need to hold a "staffing" for any decision that parents routinely make for their children, and no need for lawyers to sit around a table and speculate about liability if something bad were to happen during a normal activity. Although foster parents will often consult friends, family members, clergy and experts as decisions come up (just as my wife and I do for our own children), the authority to make these decisions needs to rest with the foster parent.

With these thoughts in mind, it is clear that although "normalcy" is often discussed, what we really need is for caregivers in foster care to have "permission to parent." This is why legislation is needed to ensure that foster parents and other caregivers have the authority to make real time decisions for children as any "reasonable and prudent parent" would do for their own child.

The legal standard for decision-making today is to balance "safety" and "normalcy." The problem with this requirement is that many providers equate "safety" with "liability." Talk about the issue with any lawyer who represents an organization providing residential care, and the word liability will be the central theme. It's not difficult to see why something as "normal" as a teenager going to the beach would become a bureaucratic nightmare.

I want to thank Sen. Nancy Detert and Rep. Ben Albritton for sponsoring a bill to be considered by the 2013 Florida Legislature that will give children in foster care what they need most: parenting.

Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the statewide Guardian ad Litem office and formerly director of the Family Safety Program with the Florida Department of Children and Families, can be reached at askthegal@12gal.org.

Senate Bill 164 Aims to Promote Normalcy for Children

On Sunday, January 6, 2013, Florida Guardian ad Litem Program Executive Director Alan Abramowitz sent an email to volunteers, staff and supporters detailing new legislation filed to ensure that children in foster care may enjoy normal childhood activities.

You can read the text of Abramowitz's letter below and download a draft of Senate Bill 164, the Quality-Parenting for Children in Foster Care Act.

From Alan Abramowitz

Volunteers, staff and supporters:

I am very happy to share with you a copy of Senate Bill 164, the "Quality-Parenting for Children in Foster Care Act." This bill, sponsored by Senator Nancy Detert of Venice, amends Chapters 39 and 409 and will codify the expectation that foster parents operate under a "reasonable and prudent parent" standard to make day-to-day decisions for their foster children. Representative Ben Albritton of Wauchula will be filing a companion bill in the House. If passed, this bill will take us a big step forward in promoting normalcy for children and youth in out-of-home care, and it echoes the voices of young people who long to be regular kids like their peers.

We expect to have good discussion about the bill in both Houses of the Florida Legislature. I will be calling on some of you who can come to Tallahassee to speak with legislative staff, members, and legislative committees over the next couple of months as the bill makes its way through the House and Senate. I hope you will lend your voice to the call for normalcy for foster children in whatever venue is most comfortable for you. There may be times when it comes up for a vote and we have an opportunity to testify as guardians ad litem that it is important for children.

Please let me know if you would be able to testify if given enough time to prepare to come up. The testimony could be telling a story of a child that did not have normalcy that you advocated for as a GAL or it could be just stating that you're a GAL for a number of years and support the bill. It is important to legislatures to hear from people they respect—such as GALs, our non-profits, GAL staff and other supporters.

In summary, Senate Bill 164:

  • Recognizes the importance of normalizing the lives of children in out-of-home care;
  • Empowers caregivers to approve or disapprove a child's participation in activities without prior approval of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), the caseworker or the courts;
  • Establishes a "reasonable and prudent parent" standard of care for caregivers in determining whether to allow a child in out-of-home care to participate in extracurricular, enrichment, or social activities;
  • Requires DCF and community based care lead agencies to verify that their policies are consistent with this law;
  • Limits liability for caregivers who apply the reasonable and prudent parent standard;
  • Requires DCF to adopt rules to implement the bill;
  • Resolves a long-standing concern over return of children to the offending parent after the parent has completed their case plan. The standard for reunification is changed from "endangerment" to "best interest of the child;"
  • Eliminates the requirement for a "normalcy plan" and quarterly updates; and
  • Incorporates goals and objectives for participation in extracurricular, enrichment and social activities into the judicial social study report and requires review of such provisions at each judicial review.

Respectfully,

Alan Abramowitz

New Photograph Set: CAII Holiday Wish List Drive 2012

Throughout the month of December 2012, Child Advocates II, Inc. (CAII) volunteers and community supporters worked tirelessly to complete the annual Holiday Wish List Drive.

Our "CAII Holiday Wish List Drive 2012" photograph set on Flickr documents several collection and organizational efforts as captured by CAII Secretary Stacey Burns.

See the complete CAII Holiday Wish List Drive 2012 photograph set on Flickr.

Every year, CAII works with local businesses, organizations and individuals throughout the area to ensure that each and every one of the children represented by our program—many of whom are abandoned, abused or neglected—receive gifts during the holiday season.

Pictures in the set include toys and clothes being sorted and temporarily stored at Trak Engineering, Inc., toys donated by players at the 97.9 FM Jeff Cameron Show Bowling Tournament at FSU Crenshaw Lanes and the large collection efforts of the Holy Comforter Episcopal School.

In Print: Florida Trend Magazine

Original Photo Credit: Florida Trend --- Logo of Florida Trend magazine and photograph of Mark R. Howard

On Friday, January 4, 2013, Florida Guardian ad Litem Program Executive Director Alan Abramowitz shared an editorial published in Florida Trend magazine with program staff and volunteers.

The article "Children's Voices" by Mark R. Howard gives an overview of the program and its history; discusses the rational behind and benefits gained using volunteers; and provides a look at the current state of affairs and the program's future goals.

Abramowitz's letter along with the complete article text are available below.

From Alan Abramowitz

Dear Volunteers,

I am pleased to share the column Children's Voices by Mark Howard, Editor of Florida Trend, which is published in the January, 2013 edition of Florida's premier business magazine.

What is especially important is the emphasis Mark places on the vital role of volunteers in service to Florida's Guardian ad Litem program, as well as the cost-effectiveness of the services provided by the professional staff who supervise such dedicated volunteers.

Please feel free to share the column, which can also be found via this link to Florida Trend.

Thank you again for all of your hard work and dedication to the children of Florida.

Respectfully,

Alan Abramowitz

Florida Trend Editorial

Children's Voices
By Mark R. Howard

Thursday, January 3, 2013
Florida Trend
Editor's Page

Scattered up and down Florida is a small army of children—about 31,500—living under court supervision. They are not troubled children living in disorderly homes or kids with drug or psychological problems. The count doesn't even include children whose families DCF may be monitoring.

These 31,500 kids have been abandoned, abused or neglected so badly that the state has removed them from their homes and placed them with relatives, foster parents or in group homes. This October, for example, DCF removed 1,198 children from their parents.

Children, as every good parent knows, want more than anything to feel that they're being heard—even more than they want to get their way. And for 30 years, the state of Florida has struggled to give damaged children a voice amid the clatter and din of its child protection bureaucracy.

Since the 1970s, state law has required that courts appoint an independent advocate—a "guardian ad litem"—for each child they remove from a home. The guardian's task is to track the child's condition in foster care and make sure he gets a say as his case is handled in court.

Implementing the law has been a slog. As with many well-intentioned mandates, the program was never funded sufficiently to hire enough paid case managers. Most children continued to go to court alone. counties experimented with different ways of providing guardian ad litem services, but the program didn't begin to find a real footing until groups including the National Council for Jewish Women and the Junior League in Jacksonville, Gainesville and Miami pioneered the extensive use of lay volunteers.

In 1980, Florida became the first state to use public money for a statewide volunteer guardian ad litem program. By 1990, a volunteer program existed in all of Florida's judicial circuits, but the program didn't have a statewide executive director until 2003. As recently as 2007, only a little more than half of the state's abused children were getting services from a volunteer guardian.

Why volunteers? "Government can't raise a family," says Alan Abramowitz, the statewide program's executive director since 2010. A trained volunteer guardian serving one or two children can spend more time with them than a paid worker with a 45-child case load, he says. The volunteers, who can develop real relationships with the children they serve, offer the best hope of introducing a semblance of normalcy into young lives in which very little has been normal.

Under Abramowitz, the statewide program developed a scorecard to measure its effectiveness. That process included interviewing children. What they wanted most, he says, was "personal interest" in their cases. "We want that unique relationship" between volunteer and child, he says. "We want the volunteer to know the child better than anybody who's being paid."

Results bear him out—children served by volunteers do better at school, get better medical care and other services and return to foster care half as often as others.

"Everybody thinks about an advocate in terms of the courtroom and helping to represent the child before a judge, but most of the advocacy occurs outside the courtroom"—with foster parents, DCF case managers or with school personnel, he says.

Abramowitz has aggressively recruited volunteer guardians and is leveraging the skills of the program's paid staffers, who each now oversee 38 volunteers and help coordinate support services and partnerships with local non-profits that raise money to support the volunteers' work. Volunteers are screened, background-checked, get 30 hours of training and typically handle no more than two children's cases.

So with the same number of paid employees and 10% less money than the program got five years ago, nearly twice as many children are getting services from volunteer guardians.

Of the 21,000 children assigned to the guardian ad litem program, Abramowitz says 74% now have a volunteer guardian assigned to their cases—up from 55% in 2007.

The extensive use of volunteers plays to one of Florida's great strengths, the presence of so many able, active retirees. Abramowitz says some retiree-rich areas like Manatee County, the tri-county Villages area and Fort Myers have as many volunteers as are needed for the children in those areas. (To see the program's scorecard of effectiveness measures and explore volunteering, go to guardianadlitem.org.)

It is worth noting in this time of fractious politics that both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature have embraced the program. In 2012, lawmakers appropriated an extra $1.8 million to back the effort to recruit, train and support more volunteers. The volunteer count rose by 10% from March through October alone. Abramowitz would like lawmakers to continue that appropriation, with a goal of having a volunteer guardian for each child within five years.

Gov. Rick Scott also signed a law this year that allows volunteers to transport children in foster care, which enables many kids to participate more fully in after-school and other recreational activities—and builds trust between the child and the volunteer.

In a state that generally ranks low on lists of good places to be a child, the statewide guardian ad litem program is an elegant combination of effectiveness and accountability, of individuals joining hands with government to give a voice to innocent kids who are suffering through no fault of their own.

Copyright © 2012, Trend Magazines Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Psychotropic Medications Continuing Education

On Monday, December 17, 2012, the Second Judicial Circuit Model Court Team hosted a training course on psychotropic medications. The educational materials, forms and workshop handouts are available to download.

Volunteer guardians ad litem who read the materials, forms and review the website links below may receive one (1) hour of continuing education credit. Remember, you can report your hours online quickly and easily.

Questions about continuing education may be sent to christine.gornik@gal.fl.gov.

Update
2014-09-06: update links to new locations in the continuing education resource center

Holiday Wish Lists Fulfilled by Starbucks Managers

On Thursday, December 13, 2012, Starbucks managers from stores in the Big Bend region joined their district manager Omega Wynn to shop for toys and clothes in support of the 2012 Child Advocates II, Inc. (CAII) Holiday Wish List Drive. Wynn is a volunteer guardian ad litem and serves on the CAII board of directors.

Every year, CAII works with local businesses, organizations and individuals throughout the area to ensure that each and every one of the children represented by our program—many of whom are abandoned, abused or neglected—receive gifts during the holiday season.

Starbucks regularly supports our program and we thank them for their help with the wish list drive. Pictured below are Starbucks store managers Niki, Andy, Austin, Mercedes, Cynthia, Jeff, Josh, Candy, Michael and Ricky doing their shopping. Click a photo to see it larger on Flickr.

Original Photo Credit: gal2.org/Omega Wynn --- Starbucks store managers Niki and Andy shopping for toys and clothes in support of the CAII Holiday Wish List Drive on December 13, 2012 in Tallahassee, Florida. Original Photo Credit: gal2.org/Omega Wynn --- Starbucks store managers Austin and Mercedes shopping for toys and clothes in support of the CAII Holiday Wish List Drive on December 13, 2012 in Tallahassee, Florida.

Original Photo Credit: gal2.org/Omega Wynn --- Starbucks store managers Cynthia and Jeff shopping for toys and clothes in support of the CAII Holiday Wish List Drive on December 13, 2012 in Tallahassee, Florida. Original Photo Credit: gal2.org/Omega Wynn --- Starbucks store managers Josh and Candy shopping for toys and clothes in support of the CAII Holiday Wish List Drive on December 13, 2012 in Tallahassee, Florida.

Original Photo Credit: gal2.org/Omega Wynn --- Starbucks store managers Michael and Ricky shopping for toys and clothes in support of the CAII Holiday Wish List Drive on December 13, 2012 in Tallahassee, Florida.

Thank you to Starbucks and everyone else who helped to make the 2012 drive a success!