“You never stand so tall as when you stoop to help a child”
Child advocacy is one of the most rewarding areas of practice. The Florida Guardian ad Litem program consists of 220 dedicated volunteers who act as the voice of abused, abandoned, and neglected children in the dependency court system. We currently need to have an estimated 800 volunteers in order to have 100 percent representation of all children in the Fourth Circuit. The need is greater now than ever.
There are some general requirements for all program volunteers. They must be at least nineteen years of age, pass a criminal background check, and have an interest in helping children. The program typically offers three types of volunteer opportunities, the most common of which is a Guardian ad Litem volunteer. Guardian ad Litem volunteers do independent, unbiased investigations of cases, and are responsible for seeing the child involved at least once every thirty days. Along with speaking to all parties involved and appropriate professionals, they review court, medical, mental health and school records. Once all available information is gathered, they make recommendations to the court regarding what is in the child’s best interest.
Guardian ad Litem volunteers must first complete an initial interview which provides the prospective volunteer with the opportunity to ask any questions he/she might have. Following the interview, the application process begins, including the background check. After all documentation is received and references are checked, the volunteers begin training. All of our training is offered at no cost to volunteers. The training is a total of thirty hours which can be completed in two ways. Volunteers can complete 28 hours over four days in a classroom setting, or complete the 28 hours in a combination of classroom and online training, the majority of which can be done online. The remaining two hours is dedicated to courtroom observation where volunteers attend court with experienced staff and observe the proceedings.
Once training is completed, the volunteers are sworn in by the administrative judge of the dependency division, Judge Henry Davis. The newly sworn Guardians are then assigned to a team consisting of the volunteer, case coordinator, and program attorney. As a team, they work together to represent the best interests of each child.
Another volunteer opportunity, as a Pro Bono Attorney, allows members of the Florida Bar to serve as a point of contact for children who are receiving independent living services, or who are preparing to age out of the foster care system. The Pro Bono Attorneys also see each of their assigned children on a monthly basis. They may act as mentors to children or choose to represent them in specialty areas such as probate, special education, medical malpractice, and immigration. Those who wish to assist the program in this capacity have a different set of requirements. There is a shortened application process, and no references are required providing the attorney is a member in good standing with the Florida Bar. Training for Pro Bono Attorneys is reduced to eight hours, and can be completed online. Those who complete the training are also eligible to receive eight hours of Continuing Legal Education credit including one hour of ethics.
Upon completion of the eight hours of training, attorneys are sworn in also by Judge Davis and are assigned their cases by Supervising Attorney, Hilary Creary.
The third volunteer opportunity gives Attorneys the option to act as an Attorney ad Litem for the child. In dependency court, the parties are all represented by counsel. The Attorney ad Litem assumes this position for the child and serves the child in a normal attorney-client relationship. This is different from being a Pro Bono Attorney in that the Attorney ad Litem is responsible for representing the child’s wishes, while the Pro Bono Attorney represents the best interests of the child.
By giving a few hours of time each month, you too can make a difference in the lives of our children by being their voice in court. If you or someone you know is interested in becoming a volunteer with the Guardian ad Litem Program, please contact the office at 630-1200.
Requests for civil legal assistance from the Fourth Circuit’s low-income families have never been greater. Attorneys are needed in all areas of civil law for pro bono representation. Contact Kathy Para, Chairperson, JBA Pro Bono Committee, for information on areas of greatest need, volunteer opportunities in Fourth Circuit legal services organizations including Missing Links, and support for pro bono attorneys at [email protected] or 356-8371, ext. 363.