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

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.

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