July 30, 2014

Editor's Page

Children's Voices

Mark R. Howard | 1/3/2013

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.

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