In my career as a circuit judge and during my service as a justice of the Florida Supreme Court, I've had to make many difficult decisions. More often than not, people's lives, and certainly the quality of their lives, were in the balance as my colleagues and I deliberated over the facts in specific cases. It was our task to be fair and weigh all possible evidence to come to our final conclusions and issue our orders.
Over the years I have learned that public service at every level of government in each of its three branches — executive, legislative and judicial — requires decisionmaking about priorities and making the best choices given the facts at hand.
As our leaders struggle to reduce the state's budget in order to deal with the economic crisis, it's my view that cuts to services provided to Florida's abused, abandoned and neglected children should be avoided. Budget cuts to the child welfare system — which includes the Guardian ad Litem Program, services provided by the Department of Children and Families, other family services agencies, and the justice system responsible for the children's court cases — are potentially damaging to the fragile lives of our most vulnerable citizens.
Every day children around the state are being removed from their families, placed into unfamiliar homes and different schools, and into a system that is already underfunded and overwhelmed. The Guardian ad Litem Program is the best organization I know to represent the best interests of Florida's child abuse victims in their unwilling journey through our courts and the foster care system.
Both state and federal law require a Guardian ad Litem to represent every child who is thrust into our state's dependency court system. These young victims have been removed from their homes in our best effort to keep them safe, and it is our obligation to ensure their voices are heard and their interests are protected.
The Guardian ad Litem Program is made up of volunteers, staff and attorneys who work as a team to advocate for each individual child. Each Guardian ad Litem team member's expertise is critical. Guardian ad Litem volunteers and staff ensure that judges making decisions about children have the very latest information about the child. Guardian ad Litem attorneys use their legal skills to ensure the best care and provision for dependent children and obtaining services for youth turning 18 in the foster care system.
According to John Woodhead, a Guardian ad Litem volunteer in the circuit serving Sarasota County, "The Guardian ad Litem volunteer can gather information to identify the child's needs and best interest, but without the guidance and advocacy of an attorney the child's needs and best interest may never be heard by the court." The Guardian ad Litem cannot effectively function without supervision and support for its volunteers.
After my retirement from the Supreme Court, I had the privilege of serving on the state board for the Guardian ad Litem Program. During that time I heard many stories of the impact the local Guardian ad Litem programs had in the lives of children. These stories confirmed that the program that was in its infancy in this state when I was a trial judge has blossomed into a significant and unique outreach for the unfortunate children who have been brought into the court system through no fault of their own.
There are 20 Guardian ad Litem Programs throughout our state working tirelessly to serve these children. The program's current resources, however, are only sufficient to represent 83 percent of the more than 35,000 children in the dependency system. It appears that more budget cuts are looming, leaving more and more of our children all alone in a social services system most of them cannot possibly understand.
Our leaders, who are stewards of our state's economic health and well-being, must recognize that the short-term economic benefit of across-the-board budget cuts to social services programs like the Guardian ad Litem may have significant long-term consequences and leave thousands more children without a voice.
Florida's children are our most precious resource and our future. Our state's leaders must ensure we live up to our obligations to these children by not taking away the dignity of having their voices heard and their interests protected in the child welfare system. For additional information, please visit www.guardianadlitem.org.
Major B. Harding, former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, served as a jurist at the county, circuit, and statewide levels for nearly 40 years.