The State of Florida Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Program is a network of professional staff and community advocates, partnering to provide a strong voice in court and positive systemic change on behalf of Florida’s abused and neglected children.
There are currently GAL Programs in all 20 judicial circuits in Florida.
The program’s mission is simple and clear, “I am for the Child.” The vision statement from the program to accomplish their mission reads: “The Florida Guardian ad Litem Program will continue to be a powerful and effective voice advocating for the best interests of Florida’s abused, abandoned and neglected children and be recognized and respected as a partnership of community advocates and professional staff. To the fullest extent possible, this vision will be realized through volunteers who will advocate as Guardians ad Litem for the children they serve.”
According to the GAL Program 2018 Annual Report, when a child is abused, abandoned or neglected and cannot remain at home in a healthy, safe environment, he or she is removed and a court case begins. The GAL Program is appointed by the judge to represent the child’s best interests and is the only party in the case that focuses exclusively on the child.
Florida’s GAL Program represents the best interests of children alleged to be abused, abandoned or neglected who are involved in court proceedings. This means advocacy for things the law says the child is entitled to, such as a permanent home within a year, and working to ensure child-centered decisions are made by having a thorough understanding of the facts and the child. GALs visit children regularly to understand their circumstances, wishes and needs, and to explain the process in a way they can understand. GALs give children a voice and help them find their own.
The GAL Program uses a team approach to represent children using GAL volunteers, child advocate managers and best-interests attorneys. GAL volunteers bring a community-based, common-sense approach to children’s cases. They are supervised and supported by child advocate managers who help them navigate the complex dependency system. Best-interests attorneys provide essential legal counsel, attend hearings and depositions, negotiate outside of the courtroom and take on appeals. The unique perspective and expertise of each team member complements the others and all are critical in advocating for the best interests of children.
GAL volunteers are the eyes and the ears of the court providing firsthand accounts of the child’s situation at critical points in the case through reports to the judge. The GAL gives the child a voice and helps the child find his or her own voice unlike other dependency stakeholders with caseloads of many children – the GAL volunteer serves two children at a time on average. This enables GAL volunteers to get to know their children, visit their homes and schools, and develop a relationship with each child. Having a firsthand understanding of the child enhances the GAL team’s advocacy because the case can be seen from the child’s perspective and advocacy built around the child’s unique needs. The GAL Program has over 170 lawyers representing children’s best interests. Legal advocacy of the best interests of children must be well-informed, proactive and tailored to the unique needs of each child. GAL best-interests attorneys advocate for things like expedited permanency, compliance with statutory time frames, stability in placements and schools, appropriate healthcare, including mental health treatment, visitation, involving children in court hearings when it is in their best interests, and normalcy activities.
The GAL Program’s Appellate Team litigates in all of Florida’s appellate courts. The GAL Program uses appellate advocacy to make systemic changes for children’s best interests. The GAL appellate team has coordinated litigation to make case law more child-centered in the area of adoption intervention and in the constitutional analysis of least restrictive means. The decisions of the appellate courts affect all children, and the GAL Program ensures children’s legal interests are at the forefront in appeals, appearing in over 580 appellate cases in 2017.
The GAL Program advocates for systemic improvements for the thousands of children it represents by championing legislation that furthers children’s best interests. The GAL Program worked with legislators to pass laws allowing children to use facility and therapy dogs in dependency court, to give foster and adoptive parents free access to state parks, and to make permanent the Keys to Independence Program, which helps kids in out-of-home care get driver licenses. In 2018, the GAL Program is advocating to improve the quality of representation in dependency court and to expedite permanency for children through bills to streamline the identification of legal fathers and more meaningfully engage incarcerated parents in case plans. In 2017, the GAL Program expanded pro bono opportunities in its “Defending Best Interests” initiative. Attorneys volunteer to write the legal argument in a child’s case on appeal with support from the GAL Program. The initiative has received enthusiastic support, especially from the Appellate Practice Section of The Florida Bar. Attorneys help children reach permanency by defending judicial determinations of best interests, children benefit from advocacy by some of Florida’s top lawyers, and the state saves money.
Section 39.01305 authorizes appointment of attorneys for certain children with special needs, such as a developmental disabilities diagnosis. The GAL Program must attempt to find attorneys to serve pro bono, and if a volunteer attorney cannot be found, an attorney from a registry is appointed. The GAL Program is working to improve the number and quality of attorneys representing children. The GAL Program provides training opportunities to registry attorneys, including providing scholarships to an annual conference focused on topics unique to these children. The GAL Program is also working to remove barriers for pro bono attorneys to serve through legislation that will enable volunteer attorneys to have due process costs paid by the state. The GAL Program is also collaborating with The Florida Bar Foundation using its Pro Bono Matters website to more effectively identify pro bono attorneys who are interested in representing children with special needs.
If you would like to learn about becoming a volunteer Guardian ad Litem, visit guardianadlitem.org or contact the 20th Judicial Circuit Office via telephone at 239-533-KIDS(5437). The 20th Judicial Circuit’s program encompasses the counties of Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee. The circuit director is Holly Rodriguez.