TAMPA — Over the past five years, state lawmakers have funneled an additional $10 million into its Guardian ad Litem Program, a state initiative to provide legal representation and advocacy for every child in foster care.
But even as the program added almost 140 new staffers since 2016, the number of children it served fell by by almost 10 percent, a new state report shows. In the 2020 fiscal year, one third of kids — roughly 18,000 children — had no guardian ad litem advocating for their interests, a violation of state law.
The review, conducted by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability also reported that Florida’s model of trained volunteers serving as guardians ad litem has shown mixed results in studies. It falls short of the recommendation of national children’s law experts, including the American Bar Association, that attorneys fulfill that role.
It also questioned whether the agency is accurately tracking how well it is performing, since it relied on statewide data that included children with no guardian ad litem to report how long children were in care and whether they were reunified with parents or adopted.
State lawmakers, including Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg and Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, requested the review in the 2020 legislative session. Book chairs the Senate Committee on Children, Families, and Elder Affairs. The findings were worse than they feared, said Book, who plans to question the agency’s executive director Alan Abramowitz at a committee hearing on Jan. 26.
Among her other concerns: an employee turnover rate of 50 percent and low salaries paid to program employees, some of whom have to supplement their income with public benefit programs, she said.
State lawmakers allocated $53 million to the program in the last fiscal year, and its local offices received another $9.7 million, the review shows.
“If you’re getting $60 million a year, where the hell is the money going?” said Book. “This report has shown there is no accountability.”
Abramowitz said in email that his agency is seeking clarification on several matters in the report and that he wanted to speak with Book before speaking to the media.
“We value the feedback from OPPAGA and the partnership with the Legislature and will continue to represent abused and neglected children,” the email said.
Florida’s Guardian ad Litem Program was created in 2004 to replace earlier local initiatives that were part of the court system. Its role is to advocate for the best interests of children in the complicated child-dependency legal system where other parties, including the state and biological parents, may also be represented by attorneys. The program relies on a network of trained volunteers, roughly 13,000 last year, who are supervised by child advocate managers and attorneys.
Unlike in many other states, the attorney’s client is the agency, not the child. That model does not meet guidelines to qualify for federal funding that would cover at least a third of the cost of having attorneys provide direct representation for children.
Still, leaders of the agency have repeatedly hailed the program as a success and touted its effectiveness. The agency’s 2020 annual report states that it “has a unique statewide perspective on improving representation and outcomes for children.”
But the report cited issues with the program’s data, which is handled by a third-party vendor. Reviewers found missing data, such as discharge dates, and struggled to match the data to that in the Florida Department of Children and Families system.
Also, Guardian ad Litem employees were unable to comply with reviewers’ request for comprehensive data on the children the program served going back to 2015. The report found that employees lacked in-depth knowledge of the data in their system.
“It’s really quite astonishing that so much money is provided to this organization, and they can’t provide any raw data to the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability,” Book said.
The lack of accurate data runs contrary to child welfare best practices, which use volumes of metrics and data to measure what works and what doesn’t. State agencies are increasingly required by law to use public money only on practices proven by statistics to be effective.
“The idea they can’t even produce a verifiable report of what has happened on the cases they were appointed on really brings the credibility and leadership of that program into question,” said Robert Latham, associate director of the Children & Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami and a former Guardian ad Litem attorney.
The review included interviews with judges, child law attorneys and other stakeholders in the system.
A majority of judges said the state’s model works well. Volunteers typically advocate only for one or two children at a time, allowing them to get closer to their charges than case managers who handle many more children. Volunteers also are able to provide judges with information they might not otherwise receive.
But some child law attorneys expressed concern about the lack of legal representation for children and the level of expertise among volunteers who often, they said, side with the state’s recommendations for child placement. Some also said the program “seems biased against and often delays reunification” with parents.
About 65 percent of foster children in Hillsborough County were assigned to a guardian ad litem in the 2020 fiscal year, roughly 1,300 children. The decision about which child gets an advocate is typically made at a local guardian ad litem office, based on factors that include the child’s age, whether or not the state is likely to terminate parental rights, where the child has been placed and the severity of abuse, said Tabitha Lambert, circuit director for the Guardian Ad Litem Program in Hillsborough County.
“We want to be on every case from beginning to end,” Lambert said. “Being there for these kids is so important, and getting judges independent information on the safety and welfare of the children is crucial.”
Even with more employees and funding, recruiting volunteers across Florida has been a challenge, the review shows. Latham, the former agency attorney, said it may be time for Florida to consider a different model and emulate other states that use attorneys as guardians ad litem.
“At some point there is going to be a maximum number of people in the community willing to do this work,” Latham said. “The report shows we may have reached that natural limit.”