TAMPA — Leaders of Florida’s Guardian ad Litem Program are questioning some of the findings of a recent state report that found the program added almost 140 employees over the past four years, but served 10 percent fewer children.
The review, conducted by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, also found that one third of kids — roughly 18,000 children — had no guardian ad litem advocating for their interests, a violation of state law.
It also reported that Florida’s model of trained volunteers serving as guardians ad litem has shown mixed results in studies and falls short of the recommendation of national children’s law experts, including the American Bar Association, that attorneys fulfill that role.
But those findings are disputed by program officials who said the review overstated the number of employees in the program and maintained that the program was representing more than 70 percent of children in the child welfare system.
They also defended Florida’ model, where volunteer guardians ad litem work as a team alongside a child advocate manager and an attorney to represent the best interests of the child.
Executive director Alan Abramowitz appeared before the Florida Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs Tuesday morning to answer questions about the report. The program, which this year will receive $53 million in state funds, is performing the way that Florida lawmakers intended, he said.
“We become the significant person in that child’s life to ensure that whatever happens in court, the judge knows everything,” Abramowitz said. “And over the years, (there’s) more and more responsibility expectations for the guardian ad litem that we have never backed away from.”
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.
The review was requested by state lawmakers, including Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg and Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, who chairs the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs.
Of most concern to committee members was the question of whether foster children have “direct legal representation” through the program’s volunteer model.
That model does not seem to meet guidelines to qualify for federal funding that would cover at least a third of the cost of legal representation for foster children. Guidelines from the Children’s Bureau, a federal agency organized under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, indicates a child must get independent legal representation by an attorney.
Abramowitz said it’s still unclear whether Florida’s model meets the federal criteria. In June 2019, he said he asked Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Chad Poppell to ask the federal government for reimbursement for program attorneys. It’s unclear if Poppell took any action.
During the committee meeting, State Sen. Tom Wright, R-New Smyrna Beach, questioned how the program could add nearly 140 employees, but serve roughly 4,500 fewer children compared to 2016.
“So, to me, that just seems like the cost per child has gone up exponentially,” Wright said.
The meeting ended before Abramowitz was given time to respond to that. He and other program leaders later told the Tampa Bay Times that the program has added only 52 new employees since 2016 and is serving more children than reported by the state review.
The program also has had to deal with changing foster care populations across Florida, said special counsel Deborah Lacombe. For instance, the number of foster children in Miami and Broward counties has fallen by more than 2,000 in recent years, yet the number surged in other parts of the state, including Hillsborough County.
Some of the additional funding has also been used to improve training, including a certification program for child advocate managers.
Roy Miller, president of the Tallahassee non-profit The Children’s Campaign, said the volunteer model is successful and plays a valuable role in Florida’s child welfare system, providing stability to children in a system with a high turnover of staff. He doubts that attorneys would be able to provide the same connection to children.
“There’s very, very few attorneys ad litem that are going to spend the time with children that guardians ad litem do,” Miller said. “They’re not going to take them to get haircuts and take them to ball games.”