by Joe Wilhelm Jr.
Providing children with a voice in court.
The Fourth Judicial Circuit Florida Guardian ad Litem program said “Thank You” to volunteers who did just that over the last year with a reception at their office on the second floor of the Duval County Courthouse Annex Building on Bay Street recently.
“We are so grateful for those who participate,” said Hilary Creary, supervising attorney for the local Guardian ad Litem program. “This is the least we could do.”
The goal of the Guardian ad Litem program is to make sure that Florida’s abused or neglected children have someone to represent their interests in court. The local program has 28 attorneys currently enrolled and 20 in training, but it could always use more help.
“There are so many ways a Guardian ad Litem can help a child in foster care,” said Creary. “They could be a mentor or lend their legal field of expertise to assist a child in court.”
People interested in becoming a Guardian ad Litem are required to fill out an application, complete a screening review and be a member in good standing with the Florida Bar. The process is completed with an 8-hour training course, which provides 8 CLE credits, including one ethics credit and it will also fulfill the Florida Bar’s pro bono requirement.
Once the training is complete the Guardian ad Litem works as a team with program staff and attorneys to provide advocacy for a foster child transitioning into adulthood.
“I always had an interest in family law and (volunteering with the Guardian ad Litem program) was something that was encouraged by my firm as a very worthy cause,” said Jonathan Huffman of Smith Hulsey. “I enjoy working with children. I have done so for years as a tennis coach.”
Attorneys aren’t the only people who can participate in the program. Law students are also a valuable resource for the program. Because they are not lawyers yet, law students are called special advocates and, normally, function as a contact person with the child to make sure their needs are being met.
Resources and training aren’t the only help for Guardians ad Litem, they are also covered by the state in regards to malpractice insurance. Under the Florida Volunteer Protection Act, sec. 768.1355 of the Florida Statutes, pro bono attorneys are covered by the State’s liability insurance for malpractice.
For more information on the program, go to www.gal.fl.gov or call 630-1200.