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The Bar Bulletin
Jax Daily Record Thursday, Jun. 4, 202005:00 AM EST

What it means to be an advocate for children

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Guardian ad Litem has positively changed the path of my career.

By Ashley Speers, JBA Dependency Committee

Ashley Speers

When I entered law school in 2009, I knew I wanted to make a difference by representing a child’s perspective, which I found to be sometimes lost in family law matters.

It was in my first year of law school that I found the Guardian ad Litem program. It was established to represent the best interest of children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse, abandonment or neglect.

The program uses a team approach that comprises a trained volunteer, a child advocate manager and a child’s best interest attorney.

At first, I was a volunteer while I was in law school, which allowed me to work directly with the children. I was able to interact with them at school and at home and advocate on their behalf for anything they needed as well as advocating on their behalf at court.

After graduating from law school and passing the Bar exam, I transitioned from volunteer to being a child’s best interest attorney with Guardian ad Litem.

My duties and responsibilities include working with the volunteer and child advocate manager to advocate in court for what is best for each child we represent. 

This involves whether a child needs a specific service, their placement needs to be changed or even whether their parents’ rights should be terminated.

As a child’s best interest attorney, I attend hearings on a weekly basis to address a range of matters including whether a parent should be reunified with their children or if a parent’s rights should be terminated. 

In each case, there are judicial reviews where we make permanency recommendations on whether a child should be reunified or adopted based on whether a parent has changed their behaviors that led to the removal of the children. 

One of the reasons I am able to do my job is because of the volunteers and child advocate managers that are with the program.

The volunteers come from different career backgrounds but all have the passion to help children. They go into the home and see the children to provide information to the child advocate manager and child’s best interest attorney so that we can make a decision as a team as to what is in a child’s best interest.

I work closely with attorneys who represent the state and with the parent’s counsel to resolve issues that may arise. My role also is to assist in filing motions to protect a child from testifying if it is not in their best interest, modify the level of visitation or even change placement of the child.

Another part of being an attorney for Guardian ad Litem is that I prepare the volunteer, child advocate manager and other witnesses to testify at termination of parental rights trials. This also includes preparing children to testify when it is appropriate and to ensure they are as comfortable as they can be when having to speak to the court.

My role is to ensure that the recommendations requested by the volunteer and child advocate manager are within the bounds of the law. In the dependency system, we operate under Chapter 39 and must adhere to those statutes when making recommendations for the children we represent. 

Although I knew I wanted to advocate on the behalf of children when I decided to attend law school, I had no idea I would find a program that truly is a child’s voice. Being a volunteer and now an attorney with Guardian ad Litem has positively changed the path of my career and allowed me to make a difference in a child’s life in a way that I did not imagine.

If you are interested in volunteering with Guardian ad Litem, visit guardianadlitem.org for information.

Ashley Speers is a senior child’s best interest attorney with the Guardian ad Litem program.

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