This month the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program issued an updated set of program standards. The standards cover new areas such as the transportation of children, and redefine old areas like the relationship between the volunteer GAL, the supervisor, and the program attorney–now called the volunteer child advocate (VCA), the child advocacy coordinator (CAC), and the child’s best interests attorney (CBI). The term “GAL” is redefined as anyone from the Program performing a best interests function at any given time. (Note: this distinction is immediately lost in the standards where “GAL” resumes the usage now covered under VCA.) Acronyms aside, the standards appear to be written less as detailed operating procedures and more as broader goals and principles. This would be in line with Mr. Abramowitz’s reputation as a big-picture leader.
The standards include a shift in the way cases are assigned, focusing on matching VCA strengths with children’s needs instead of blind assignment or assignment based on perceived urgency of the case. The standards also sketch out a conflict resolution procedure for when disagreement arises between the VCA and the CAC or CBI Attorney. The exact parameters of that procedure are not spelled out. Despite calls from outside child advocates to make the conflict process more transparent, it is still closed and hidden from the other parties and the court.
The elimination of the position “program attorney” and creation of “child’s best interests attorney” does however seem to be an attempt to respond to external and internal critique of where the attorney’s ethical duty of loyalty lies. The new standards differentiate the General Counsel who represents the GAL Program, from the CBI Attorneys who represent the best interests of children:
The former class title for this position, “program attorney” did not accurately reflect the role of these attorneys. The title was cold, agency focused and not reflective of their duties. The Program has a General Counsel who represents the Program while the CBI Attorneys are to represent the best interest of children.
I’m not sure this answers the loyalty question, however. My memory, though I may be wrong, was that the general counsel was part of the supervisory chain over the program attorneys. It remains to be seen if the General Counsel will be involved in case-specific conflict resolution staffings or intervene in a given dependency case to express a Program-focused policy position. This does have huge practical effects for children: the Program’s funding and political interests have been known to affect best interests and legal strategy positions. The more autonomy given to the CBI Attorneys, the better.
Finally, the standards respect the need for direct attorney representation in some cases, and explicitly allow for exceptions to the standards to be made by the Executive Director to allow room for innovative and progressive advocacy. In all, the standards are a further step for Mr. Abramowitz in his continued role of defining what it is the Guardian ad Litem Program does and how it does it fairly and effectively. As always, it will remain to be seen if the circuits follow or even acknowledge Tallahassee’s lead.