child welfare, law, and lots of graphs

child welfare, law, and lots of graphs

Tag: gal program

News & Notes

GAL Program Issues New Standards of Operations

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.

Legislation

What will the Florida Senate’s Committee on Children and Families Discuss Tomorrow?

According to their meeting packet, the following should be interesting:

  1. SB 434’s changes to the IL Program (creating extended foster care for $0);
  2. SB 202’s changes to the Florida Safe Harbor Act (concerning sexual exploitation shelters);
  3. A presentation by the GAL Program (mostly concerning their new pilot on driving children [ed.: chauffeur ad litem?]); and
  4. OPPAGA’s review of the IL Program.

Included in the meeting packet are staff analyses for the bills and powerpoints for the presentations.

News & Notes

FACC Stands Against NACC Certification, Just to Spite GAL Program

The background is this: NACC is looking to set up certification programs for counsel working with children across the country. This includes GALs, AALs, government attorneys, and even parents’ attorneys. The plus sides are obvious: baseline education and training requirements, elevation of the profession to something worthy of requiring special expertise (which it is), and creating cross-organizational relationships of attorneys working in child advocacy.

Just about everyone who has thought or voted on the subject has agreed that it’s a good thing for the attorneys and children of Florida. With one glaring exception: the Florida Association of Counsel for Children (FACC) has taken a strong position against the certification. Why? To roughly quote one of its members: because the GAL Program will get its attorneys certified and then people will think they’re legitimate and we’ll never get rid of them.

The GAL Program’s response was appropriate and measured. Since this is a blog, my critique does not have to be. FACC’s position is short-sighted, ideologically inane, and harmful to their own goal of institutionalizing a representation model in which children are represented directly by competent counsel. Adopting their slant (which I don’t fully agree with), if you want the GAL Program gone, you’re going to have to offer a viable, scalable alternative. Currently, there is none. Good attorneys at DCF and the GAL Program leave on a daily basis to seek careers in other fields of law. That is the enemy. Starving the GAL Program of expertise only furthers the brain drain. By creating a real thing called a counsel for children, you give those attorneys a sense of identity and a level of competence to aim for. With that you hopefully increase the likelihood of them making a career of child advocacy instead of using it as just a band-aid job until something better comes along.

NACC has my vote.

News & Notes

What do GAL Program Attorneys do?

That’s the subject matter of a certain open records request currently pending for the Guardian ad Litem Program. According to my sources, it reads as follows:

This is a public records request under chapter 119 being made upon the Statewide Guardian Ad Litem Program for an opportunity to inspect and copy documents containing the following information:

1.            The name of each attorney, circuit director and regional management staff within the Guardian Ad Litem Program throughout Florida, including that employee’s specific title, their duties and responsibilities as set forth in their position description, their particular qualifications for the job (hopefully beyond possession of a license to practice law in the case of a staff attorney), their most recent performance evaluation and their annual compensation during fiscal years 2009 and 2011.

2.            The number of dependency petitions filed, or thereafter adopted following voluntary dismissal by others, solely by the Guardian Ad Litem Program, broken down by circuit, during fiscal years 2009 and 2011.

3.            The number of termination of parental rights petitions filed, or thereafter adopted following voluntary dismissal by others, solely by the Guardian Ad Litem Program, broken down by circuit, during fiscal years 2009 and 2011.

4.            The number of appeals to the district courts of appeals (either plenary or original proceeding) in which the Program was represented solely by a staff attorney, the Program was the sole appellant and the staff attorney filed a dispositive motion, or brief longer than 10 pages in length, excluding attachments, during fiscal years 2009 and 2011.

5.            The number of appeals to the district courts of appeals (either plenary or original proceeding) in which the Program was represented solely by a staff attorney, the Program was the sole appellee and the staff attorney filed a dispositive motion, or brief longer than 10 pages in length, excluding attachments, during fiscal years 2009 and 2011.

6.            The number of fair hearings or DOAH proceedings in each circuit in which the hearing request was filed and litigated solely by a staff attorney in connection with a dependent child, during fiscal years 2009 and 2011.

7.            The policies governing and/or analyzing from the perspective of the Rules of Professional Responsibility of the Florida Bar,  (a) whether the client of an attorney employed by the Guardian Ad Litem Program is the Program or the individual Guardian Ad Litem, (b) how that relationship is described to volunteer guardians ad litem, other parties and participants, and judges, (c) all protocols for resolving disagreements between the Circuit Director, the staff attorney and/or the volunteer, and (d) whether staff attorneys are authorized by the Program to instruct voluntary Guardians Ad Litem not to speak with third-parties based on attorney-client privilege.

8.            All internal evaluations by the Program since January 1, 2010 on either a statewide or circuit basis of the efficacy of the legal component of the Statewide Guardian Ad Litem Program, including but not necessarily limited to, (a) the competence of its staff attorneys, (b) the familiarity of staff attorneys with the psychological needs of children in out-of-home care, and (c) an evaluation of whether the existing methods of assigning a staff attorney to every new case constitutes a waste of scarce resources, relative to other staffing models, in view of the fact that there is no legal requirement that an attorney be assigned to every case on which a GAL is appointed.

9.            The statewide and circuit budgets for litigation by staff attorneys during fiscal years 2009 and 2011, and how those funds were specifically spent by category of expense.

10.          Materials written by the Program itself and used for training since January 1, 2010, including but not necessarily limited to performance evaluations and position descriptions, (a) to acquaint staff attorneys with the expectations the Program has of its staff attorneys, and (b) to gauge the concrete success of those efforts.

11.          For fiscal years 2009 and 2010, records already on hand or compiled collecting the case-specific tangible accomplishments by each staff attorney that would likely not have occurred but for the initiative taken by that staff attorney.

Redactions may be made where necessary to protect statutory confidentiality.

I say good luck with that. The GAL Program (notoriously both inside and outside of the Program) does not keep case management records in any easily compilable way. If you want to know something you have to go through thousands of paper case files with thousands of pages each, all over the state.  The faster approach might be to request the “motions logs” that attorneys have to submit monthly. That would provide a more granular view of the attorneys’ day-to-day functions.

I think this is a start in building an empirical case either for or against the current representation model, but limiting the request to things done “solely” by the GAL Program may artificially skew the results because this is multi-party adversarial litigation. It would effectively require the parent and DCF to be on the same side of an issue against the GAL Program, or there to be no parent involved at all. I think the question should be whether the GAL Program filed a dispositive motion on a matter, which is much harder to track because you’d also have to look at the reasoning of the courts.