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 April 2014 archive sorted chronologically with the newest at the top.

In Print: Florida Bar News and Tallahassee Democrat Blog

On Monday, April 28, 2014, an article written by Volunteer Recruiter Sara Blumenthal was published in the Tallahassee Democrat community blog. Featured by regular contributor Ellen Piekalkiewicz, Executive Director of United Partners for Human Services, Blumenthal's piece discusses Senate Bill 744, the Keys to Independence Act under consideration this legislative session.

In addition, the May 2014 issue of The Florida Bar News includes two articles about the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program, current legislative budget proposals and a recent recognition.

Thank you to Sara Blumenthal and Ellen Piekalkiewicz, plus to The Florida Bar and Tallahassee Democrat for sharing our program with their readers.

The three articles are presented below in case you missed them.

Driving Towards Success
by United Partners for Human Services

Monday, April 28, 2014
Tallahassee Democrat Community Blog

Thanks to Sara Blumenthal, Volunteer Recruiter, Second Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program for submitting today's content.

As anyone in Tallahassee knows, the 2014 Florida legislative session is coming to an end. One of the main issues during the session has been child welfare. This year, the Guardian ad Litem program, which advocates for the interest of children in the state system, has been a huge proponent of Keys to Independence, new legislation that will remove the obstacles so youths in the dependency system can get their driver's license.

One of the biggest milestones in a person's life is when they turn fifteen and embark on the journey to procure a driver's license. It is a time of learning, a time of sitting behind the wheel and pressing on the gas pedal for the first time. Then, when their sixteenth birthday rolls around, they head to the DMV and take that picture for their first driver's license. That laminated card provides a newfound freedom on their path towards adulthood. It prepares children for a life of both success and responsibility. A driver's license allows them to drive to school or jobs, and to feel included in American society.

Unfortunately, most children in the dependency system do never get to experience that. Due to both legal and financial reasons, only two percent of youth who leave the dependency system do so with a driver's license. These children are faced with enough problems, and not being able to get a driver's license is one of the easiest to fix.

Guardian ad Litem volunteers have always tried to help our youth achieve normalcy and responsibility, and a path to independent transportation is a key component of that goal. This has been met with obstacles along the way, many of which will hopefully be removed with the passage of the new legislation.

The Keys to Independence received overwhelming support in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Our elected officials are well aware of our children's needs, and the Keys to Independence serve as an important step in addressing them.

Guardian ad Litem's only interest is the child's interest, and our volunteers work tirelessly so that the voice of every child in the child welfare system is heard. Guardian ad Litem stands tall in the corner of every child who has suffered abuse or neglect, and will continue to do so. The Keys to Independence is just the latest effort our program has made to help our children, to give them better and brighter futures. We are for the child.

For more information, please visit the Guardian ad litem website www.gal2.org.

Copyright © 2014, Tallahassee Democrat. All rights reserved.


GAL Program recognized for productivity
by The Florida Bar News

Tuesday, April 29, 2014
The Florida Bar News

For the fourth year in a row, the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program received the Prudential Davis Productivity Award sponsored by Florida TaxWatch.

The GAL Program was recognized for its work in moving children out of foster care and into permanent homes. In addition to improving outcomes for children, the program saved more than $2 million in money for foster care during the 2012–13 fiscal year.

"This is actual, tangible proof that outsiders have said [our volunteers] are doing a good job and making a difference," said GAL Executive Director Alan Abramowitz.

While the program saves the state tax dollars, Abramowitz said it also safeguards something perhaps even more valuable.

"Probably even more important to our volunteers is how much heartache it reduces," he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Florida Bar. All rights reserved.


Bump in funding should provide a GAL for every child who needs one
by Megan E. Davis, Associate Editor

Tuesday, April 29, 2014
The Florida Bar News

While Florida law dictates that courts appoint a guardian ad litem to every abused, abandoned, or neglected child, the mandate has gone unmet for decades.

Finally, that's about to change.

In December 2012, the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program served about 70 percent of children in the dependency system.

With limited resources, the program was forced to "triage" cases, providing GALs to those deemed most in need.

With the help of a $6.1 million funding increase included in the recently released Senate and House budget proposals, the program hopes to provide GALs to all children in need of one, said Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the agency.

"This will bring us to the point where every child has that advocate being a voice for them so we can get better outcomes for children," he said. "We anticipate that next year will be the last year to get to 100 percent."

At the same time, the program plans to celebrate its 10,000th volunteer along with its 35th anniversary. Abramowitz credits support from the governor and Legislature for helping move the program forward.

"They've heard our volunteers in the field and listened to children and realized how important this program is," he said.

About 80 percent of children in the dependency system now have GALs, due to an overhaul of the agency's structure, which expands the use of volunteers.

Under the program's old model, paid staff managed large caseloads of about 45 dependent children.

Rather than caseloads of children, paid staff now supervise about 38 volunteers each, who in turn represent close to 80 children.

At last count, more than 9,000 volunteers served the program.

The model is both "more effective and efficient," Abramowitz said.

"You have one volunteer with two children who knows them better than anybody, so they can develop that trust, know the child's needs, and make sure they're met," he said.

"The court will understand that these recommendations are from someone who knows the child well and is independent, unbiased, and has no interest in the case except the child."

Miranda Phillips, 21, of St. Petersburg, was assigned a GAL when she went into foster care at age 12.

"Even though she's not technically my GAL anymore, I still talk to her," she said. "She's one of the only people who was there through the whole thing. Caseworkers change and houses change, so it's like having someone stable who knows everything about you and isn't going to leave."

Phillips said her GAL helped in ways no one else could.

"If you need help and no one else is listening, they're going to listen and they're going to take it to the judge," she said. "They help you have a voice."

As both an attorney and a GAL volunteer, Steve Uhlfelder of Tallahassee said the program safeguards the rights of children.

"I think a strong guardian can make sure the interest of the child is fully appreciated and protected," said Uhlfelder, a former Bar Board of Governors member. "I really encourage lawyers to get involved with the program."

As a volunteer, he helped make sure a neglected child's needs were meet.

"Now he's in a good foster home, and I'm trying to work to make sure the best place for him to go will be determined by the court," Uhlfelder said.

As a GAL volunteer, Sue Schultz of Lakeland said she also embraces the opportunity to make sure children's needs are met — whether reuniting siblings split up in the foster system or stopping mandatory visits between a boy and the father who molested him.

"Every child needs someone who isn't part of the system," she said. "It's easier for me to talk to foster parents and parents, and it's certainly easier for me to talk to children."

Fourth Circuit Judge David Gooding said he finds the insight GALs bring to dependency cases invaluable.

"I've been alerted by a GAL volunteer when a child had a 106- degree temperature and the mother didn't get the medicine for the child that she needed," he said. "The GAL brought it to my attention, and I brought it into court and got the problem solved."

In other cases, Gooding said GALs have also alerted him to the need for dental work or eyeglasses for dependent children.

"I can tell you if the GAL volunteers weren't here, I'd probably quit," he said. "I believe every child involved in the legal process should have one."

Schultz said she looks forward to the day when 100 percent of children in the dependency system have a GAL.

"When the program started, it was only the worst cases that got guardians, so if it can be all kids, that will really kind of be a miracle almost," Schultz said.

Copyright © 2014, The Florida Bar. All rights reserved.

New Events: Continuing Education Training

We regularly host, sponsor and support a variety of events that provide community outreach, increase awareness of our program, help recruit new volunteers, raise funds and furnish training to our volunteer guardians ad litem. The following events were recently added to our calendar.

Icon: Book Continuing Education

In addition, we also added to the Additional Resources list on our Current Volunteers resource page links to information about the Second Judicial Circuit Pet Therapy in Courts Program.

Nine New Volunteers Sworn In As Guardians ad Litem

On Wednesday, April 23, 2014, nine new volunteers — consisting of graduates from our February, March and April training classes — were sworn in as guardians ad litem at the Leon County Courthouse in downtown Tallahassee.

The ceremony began with special guest Alan Abramowitz, Executive Director of the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program, who welcomed, thanked and congratulated the volunteers.

In addition to his leadership of the statewide program, Abramowitz is also a volunteer guardian ad litem here in the Second Judicial Circuit.

See the complete photograph set on Flickr.

Abramowitz used his opening remarks to provide an update on the current legislative session and talk about Senate Bill 744 — the Keys to Independence Act — which unanimously cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee the day prior. Among its provisions, the bill allows for youth ages sixteen and up to obtain a court order granting the ability to contract for automobile insurance under their own name after completing driver's education.

Next to thank the volunteers and speak was the Honorable Judge George S. Reynolds III. While the Honorable Judge Karen Gievers was scheduled to perform the swearing in, she was presiding over a court case hearing and was unable to attend.

Judge Reynolds discussed the process from the perspective of the bench, highlighting the importance, value and essential nature of guardians ad litem to the judicial processes to which they contribute. He also specifically noted the importance of the case reports guardians ad litem write, referring to them as a vital tool when making a ruling.

Moving on to the formal ceremony, the volunteers formed a semi-circle in front of Judge Reynolds who asked them to raise their right hands and repeat the oath as administered. Completing the oath, Judge Reynolds congratulated the new guardians ad litem and the courtroom broke into applause.

The volunteers joined Judge Reynolds and Abramowitz for some photographs before being invited to sit for some concluding remarks plus a special presentation. Volunteer Trainer Christine Gornik and Volunteer Recruiter Sara Blumenthal each took a few minutes to give their thanks, followed by Abramowitz who provided a contextual lead-in to the special presentation.

One of the statewide program's legislative goals during the 2012 session was the passage of SB 1960, creating a statute permitting guardian ad litem volunteers to transport children represented by the program. Abramowitz was therefore pleased to recognize volunteer Ann Leftwich, the one-hundredth volunteer approved to drive children under this law, and present her with a congratulatory certificate.

We are very proud of and thankful for all of our volunteers and the work that they do. Congratulations to our newest volunteer guardians ad litem!

To see our forty-seven photographs from this event, view Volunteers Sworn In 2014-04-23 on Flickr.

Take 5: to Learn About Independent Living Services for Transitioning Youth

Florida's permanency roundtable (PRT) work group meets quarterly to discuss learning, share success stories and identify obstacles to expediting legal permanency for children in care. The group consists of representatives from ten community-based care agencies who conduct permanency roundtables and their Department of Children and Families Children's Legal Services partners.

The permanency roundtable work group has identified the issue of misunderstanding how legal permanency impacts a youth's access to independent living services as a systemic barrier to permanency for many older youth in Florida and across the country.

Its members have repeatedly seen decisions made against pursuing legal permanency for older youth due to misinformation on how permanency will negatively impact the youth's independent living benefits. Casey Family Programs has observed this same dynamic — we call it "policy mythology" — in permanency roundtables in nearly all of the thirty-five states that implement them.

To address this issue, Casey consultant Jane Soltis developed the Permanency at a Glance cheat sheet. It is a user-friendly reference that clarifies how the achievement of legal permanency impacts access to independent living services in Florida and contains important information for professionals, youth, their caregivers and potential permanency resources.

Please feel free to widely distribute the Permanency at a Glance cheat sheet and contact Jane Soltis at jmvsoltis.consult@gmail.com with any questions or comments.

I hope that you find this as useful as I did!

Permanency at a Glance cheat sheets

Introducing the First Beginnings Project

First Beginnings (graphic of house)

The Second Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program is pleased to announce an exciting new project that will make a difference in the lives of young adults in the Big Bend region.

First Beginnings provides assistance to youth in or aging out of foster care who are venturing out on their own for the first time.

With no existing resources to provide household essentials like furniture, linens and kitchenware, many youth move into their first place without those items and end up sleeping on an air mattress.

First Beginnings bridges that gap with the help of businesses and individuals in the community plus the project's three founding sponsors: Child Advocates II, Inc., the Tallahassee Chapter of Florida Youth SHINE and Storage Center at SouthWood.

In addition to providing normalcy to these youth, First Beginnings will see that they get started off on the right foot and without debt.

You can visit our new First Beginnings project page at gal2.org/first for complete details, including how it works and the ways that you or your business can contribute.

We are very proud to launch this new project and hope that you will join us in ensuring that youth have not just a place to live, but a place to call home.

Family In Need: Bunk Beds [Fulfilled]

We regularly encounter families who are in need of living assistance but our resources are extremely limited. When special requests for essentials such as beds, linens, clothing and school supplies come in from families, our staff reach out to the community for help in fulfilling those needs.

If you can assist in fulfilling the below request or have any questions, please get in touch with the request contact. Thank you for your help!

  • Status
    Fulfilled
     
  • Request
    Two (2) sets of bunk beds
     
  • Narrative
    The bunk beds are needed for a mother who is reunifying with her four children.
     
  • Contact
    Emily Pritchard
    emily.pritchard@gal.fl.gov
    (850) 606-1225
    (850) 445-0658
Update
2015-12-21: update status to "fulfilled"

Sara Blumenthal: Community Outreach, Volunteer Recruitment

Although our mission is simple — advocating for the best interests of children is our only interest — success in fulfilling it would not be possible without the generous support and combined resources of our volunteers, community supporters and staff.

As volunteers move out of the area or have other life events that preclude them from accepting new cases, we must continually recruit and share our mission with the community. Over the past five days, Volunteer Recruiter Sara Blumenthal has been busy doing just that.

She first participated at the Leon County Safety Fair hosted by Leon County Emergency Medical Services at Governor's Square Mall on Saturday, April 5, 2014. Alongside CPR demonstrations, safety activities and tours of first responder vehicles, Blumenthal staffed our information table where people could learn about our program, ask questions and get applications to volunteer.

Original Photo Credit: gal2.org --- Volunteer Recruiter Sara Blumenthal at the Leon County Safety Fair at Governor's Square Mall in Tallahassee, Florida on April 5, 2014.

Photo: gal2.org

Then during last Tuesday's Children's Week events at the Capitol, Blumenthal had an opportunity to talk with Tallahassee Democrat reporter Jeff Burlew.

During a three minute interview, Blumenthal talks about our program and highlights current issues before the legislature this session such as the Keys to Independence Act. You can watch the video on the Democrat website: "Power Players Talk Children's Issues".

Thank you to Leon County EMS, the Tallahassee Democrat and of course Sara Blumenthal!

Take 5: to Learn About Age-Related Reactions to a Traumatic Event

from material published by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network
as found on the Florida's Center for Child Welfare website

A fundamental goal of parenting is to help children grow and thrive to the best of their potential. Parents anticipate protecting their children from danger whenever possible, but sometimes serious danger threatens, whether it is manmade, such as a school shooting or domestic violence, or natural, such as a flood or earthquake. And when a danger is life-threatening or poses a threat of serious injury, it becomes a potentially traumatic event for children.

By understanding how children experience traumatic events and how these children express their lingering distress over the experience, parents, physicians, communities and schools can respond to their children and help them through this challenging time. The goal is to restore balance to these children's lives and the lives of their families.

How Children May React

How children experience traumatic events and how they express their lingering distress depends, in large part, on the children's age and level of development. Preschool and young school-age children exposed to a traumatic event may experience a feeling of helplessness; uncertainty about whether there is continued danger; a general fear that extends beyond the traumatic event and into other aspects of their lives; and difficulty describing in words what is bothering them or what they are experiencing emotionally. This feeling of helplessness and anxiety is often expressed as a loss of previously acquired developmental skills. Children who experience traumatic events might not be able to fall asleep on their own or might not be able to separate from parents at school.

Children who might have ventured out to play in the yard prior to a traumatic event now might not be willing to play in the absence of a family member. Often, children lose some speech and toilet skills, or their sleep is disturbed by nightmares, night terrors, or fear of going to sleep. In many cases, children may engage in traumatic play — a repetitive and less imaginative form of play that may represent children's continued focus on the traumatic event or an attempt to change a negative outcome of a traumatic event.

For school-age children, a traumatic experience may elicit feelings of persistent concern over their own safety and the safety of others in their school or family. These children may be preoccupied with their own actions during the event. Often they experience guilt or shame over what they did or did not do during a traumatic event. School-age children might engage in constant retelling of the traumatic event, or they may describe being overwhelmed by their feelings of fear or sadness.

A traumatic experience may compromise the developmental tasks of school-age children as well. Children of this age may display sleep disturbances, which might include difficulty falling asleep, fear of sleeping alone, or frequent nightmares. Teachers often comment that these children are having greater difficulties concentrating and learning at school. Children of this age, following a traumatic event, may complain of headaches and stomach aches without obvious cause and some children engage in unusually reckless or aggressive behavior.

Adolescents exposed to a traumatic event feel self-conscious about their emotional responses to the event. Feelings of fear, vulnerability and concern over being labeled "abnormal" or different from their peers may cause adolescents to withdraw from family and friends. Adolescents often experience feelings of shame and guilt about the traumatic event and may express fantasies about revenge and retribution. A traumatic event for adolescents may foster a radical shift in the way these children think about the world. Some adolescents engage in self-destructive or accident-prone behaviors.

How to Help

The involvement of family, physicians, school and community is critical in supporting children through the emotional and physical challenges they face after exposure to a traumatic event.

  • For young children, parents can offer invaluable support, by providing comfort, rest and an opportunity to play or draw. Parents can be available to provide reassurance that the traumatic event is over and that the children are safe. It is helpful for parents, family and teachers to help children verbalize their feelings so that they don't feel alone with their emotions. Providing consistent caregiving by ensuring that children are picked up from school at the anticipated time and by informing children of parents' whereabouts can provide a sense of security for children who have recently experienced a traumatic event. Parents, family, caregivers and teachers may need to tolerate regression in developmental tasks for a period of time following a traumatic event.

  • Older children will also need encouragement to express fears, sadness and anger in the supportive environment of the family. These school-age children may need to be encouraged to discuss their worries with family members. It is important to acknowledge the normality of their feelings and to correct any distortions of the traumatic events that they express. Parents can be invaluable in supporting their children in reporting to teachers when their thoughts and feelings are getting in the way of their concentrating and learning.

  • For adolescents who have experienced a traumatic event, the family can encourage discussion of the event and feelings about it and expectations of what could have been done to prevent the event. Parents can discuss the expectable strain on relationships with family and peers, offering support in these challenges. It may be important to help adolescents understand "acting out" behavior as an effort to voice anger about traumatic events. It may also be important to discuss thoughts of revenge following an act of violence, address realistic consequences of actions and help formulate constructive alternatives that lessen the sense of helplessness the adolescents may be experiencing. When children experience a traumatic event, the entire family is affected.

Often, family members have different experiences around the event and different emotional responses to the traumatic event. Recognizing each others' experience of the event and helping each other cope with possible feelings of fear, helplessness, anger, or even guilt in not being able to protect children from a traumatic experience, is an important component of a family's emotional recovery.

For more information about child traumatic stress and the
National Child Traumatic Stress Network, visit nctsn.org or e-mail info@nctsn.org.

GAL Program Receives 2014 Davis Productivity Award

Logo: Davis Productivity Awards

On Friday, April 4, 2014, Statewide Guardian ad Litem Program Executive Director Alan Abramowitz shared the news that for the fourth year in a row, the program has been named recipient of a Prudential Davis Productivity Award.

Presented annually since 1989, the Davis Productivity Awards program acknowledges and rewards state employees and work units "whose work significantly and measurably increases productivity and promotes innovation to improve the delivery of state services and save money for Florida taxpayers and businesses."

The Florida Guardian ad Litem Program was recognized this year for its efforts to move children out of foster care and into permanent homes more quickly. In addition to improved outcomes for Florida's children, estimates indicate that more than $2 million dollars was saved in foster care funds during the 2012–2013 fiscal year.

The Davis Productivity Awards program is a public-private initiative chaired by the Lieutenant Governor, currently Carlos Lopez-Cantera, and sponsored by Prudential Financial, Inc., Florida TaxWatch, the Florida Council of 100 and the State of Florida. The awards were originated by J.E. Davis and A.D. Davis, the late co-founders of Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., and Florida TaxWatch.

The 2014 awards honor 432 individuals and teams for "innovations and productivity improvements worth $558 million in cost savings, cost avoidances and increased revenue for state government." Five award presentations will take place statewide in June 2014.

Congratulations to everyone involved with the program and thank you to everyone who made this honor possible!

The Florida Statewide Guardian ad Litem Program Earns the Prudential
Davis Productivity Award for 4th Consecutive Year

by Alan Abramowitz

Friday, April 4, 2014
Press Release

Yesterday, the Florida Statewide Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Program was named for the 4th year in a row as a recipient of the prestigious Prudential Davis Productivity Award sponsored by Florida Tax Watch.

The Davis Productivity Awards recognize hard-working state employees and public agencies whose work "significantly and measurably increases productivity" and "saves money for Florida taxpayers."

GAL Program Executive Director, Alan Abramowitz, took this time to recognize the volunteers and staff who fight each day to get children permanent families. Abramowitz stated that, "by using their gifts of time and talent, our 9,000 dedicated volunteers, in coordination with businesses, non-profits and the staff supporting them are bringing about better outcomes for children and assisting them to transition from foster care into permanent homes. Studies have shown that a child with a GAL volunteer is more likely to find a safe, stable home sooner than one who doesn't. To view the studies showing that outcomes are better for children who have volunteers, please click on the following link: http://www.casaforchildren.org/site/c.mtJSJ7MPIsE/b.5332511/k.7D2A/Evidence_of_Effectiveness.htm.

The GAL Program was recognized by Tax Watch for its efforts to move children out of foster care and into permanent homes more quickly. The Program estimates that in addition to the improved outcomes for Florida's children, more than $2 million was saved in foster care funds during fiscal year 2012–2013 through their efforts.

"This year, the Legislature and Governor Rick Scott continue to expand the GAL Program so we can work toward our goal for every child in Florida's dependency court system to have the representation of a Guardian ad Litem," said Abramowitz.

"We express special thanks to Florida TaxWatch, the Florida Council of 100, the State of Florida, and Prudential for sponsoring this Award."

For additional information on the work of the Guardian ad Litem Program, please visit www.GuardianadLitem.org.

Family In Need: Stroller and Chest of Drawers [Fulfilled]

We regularly encounter families who are in need of living assistance but our resources are extremely limited. When special requests for essentials such as beds, linens, clothing and school supplies come in from families, our staff reach out to the community for help in fulfilling those needs.

If you can assist in fulfilling the below request or have any questions, please get in touch with the request contact. Thank you for your help!

  • Status
    Fulfilled
     
  • Request
    One (1) stroller
    One (1) chest of drawers
     
  • Narrative
    A relative caregiver was recently given custody of a newborn infant.
     
  • Contact
    Kerri Posey
    kerri.posey@gal.fl.gov
    (850) 606-1211
    (850) 294-0830
Update
2015-02-05: update status to fulfilled