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Who Decides the Fate of Your Children in Dependency Court?

By Tom Lemons, Authorized Correspondent | July 17, 2019

In response to info offered by the Florida Guardian Advert Litem Basis, the program has represented over 200,000 youngsters since it was established over 35 years in the past. The Guardian Advert Litem program, or GAL, is made up of over 10,000 volunteers who symbolize abused, neglected and abandoned youngsters in dependency instances. Each of Florida’s 20 Judicial Circuits operates an unbiased branch of the GAL program. In line with the latest statistics, GAL has represented over 39,792 youngsters, up to now this yr. Data point out that the program acquired $52,403,790 in funding for 2019-2020 and that CASA, a national organization that helps and promotes court-appointed advocates for abused or neglected youngsters, has offered funding in the previous.

Although most GALs are appointed in instances where severe varieties of abuse are alleged by one social gathering or the other, there are times when a decide can appoint a GAL at the request of counsel to act as a “voice” for minor youngsters. Ayo & Iken Lawyer Jason Ponder says, “In most high conflict cases the appointment of a GAL can be very useful to break the “hard line” stances of the parties. In a approach it could possibly additionally permit the attorneys to work on the case with information from an unbiased social gathering who addresses points solely associated to the youngsters. I have had GAL’s file motion on their very own behalf to cope with points they felt have been essential relating to youngsters.” Lawyer Howard Iken says it is very important perceive the distinction between a Guardian Ad Litem in a dependency case and one in a household regulation case. A dependency case will much more likely involve a GAL they usually have a task extra rigidly defined by statute. They are typically volunteers that obtain in-depth coaching. A family regulation GAL is most of the time an area lawyer and is usually compensated by the hour. But the aim of each GAL is analogous – “to give a voice to the child.”

In an effort to raised understand the GAL program and decide simply what makes it tick, I contacted the State GAL Director Alan Abramowitz in Tallahassee. Abramowitz forwarded my inquiry to Margie Menzel, GAL’s Communications Director, to schedule an interview. While waiting on a response from Tallahassee, I despatched requests to Diana Gisonni of the fifth Circuit, Tabitha Lambert of the 13th Circuit, and representatives of the 12th and 6th Circuits, to attempt to schedule on-camera interviews. Gisonni and Lambert have been very happy to oblige, and we have been on monitor to assembly final week – however instantly and with out warning, the program directors shut down my request, like turning off a light-weight change.

Tom, we respect your curiosity in Guardian ad Litem, however respectfully decline to conduct interviews about the Program by means of your regulation agency. In the event you care to submit particular questions, I’ll do my greatest to answer them in writing.

Thank you,

Margie Menzel

Mr. Lemons,

Thank you in your request and endurance. Your interest in the Guardian advert Litem program is

a lot appreciated. Nevertheless, presently, we’re deferring to Margie Menzel, our Director of

Communications.

Diana Gisonni

Director of Recruitment & Training

5th Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program

And this one from Tabitha Lambert which began as a prodigiously heat welcome however abruptly turn ice-cold after she spoke to Margie Menzel.

July 10, 2019 at 10:40 a.m.

Tom-

I’m comfortable to assist. I’ve also included Mariela Ollsen, who is the director in Pinellas/Pasco

counties. I’m positive both of us might help you out together with your story.

I’m obtainable most of Friday, if that works for you.

Tabitha Lambert, CPM

Circuit Director

13th Circuit

Less than 30 minutes later…

July 10, 2019 at 10:58 a.m.

Hello Mr. Lemons,

My schedule just lately changed and I’m unavailable. Please coordinate an interview with Margie

Menzel, who’s our communication director. Her number is 850-354-2046 and I’ve copied her

on this e mail.

In fact, the sudden snubbing resulted in an e mail to Director Alan Abramowitz, who not surprisingly deferred my inquiry again to Margie Menzel with out rationalization.

What started as a easy informational piece about the GAL program, shortly became an exploratory mission as to why we have been ostracized. My intrigue escalated after requesting opinions from our legal staff and Ayo & Iken viewers – and the responses were not what I expected.

Ayo & Iken attorneys had combined evaluations on the value of using GALs in dependency instances, and most agreed that the premise is commendable however not infallible.

Lawyer Jeana Vogel says, “I have mixed feelings about the program. I am often pessimistic about it in family law cases. A recent case in which I feel the GAL volunteer completely got her opinion wrong and overstepped, which greatly impacted the outcome, was a divorce case in Sarasota. However, I have had a few very positive experiences with GALs in family law cases, so I cannot say they are completely without merit.” Vogel believes judges lean in the direction of appointing GALs when security considerations exist for a child.

Lawyer Howard Ellzey concurs with Vogel’s opinion and has experienced a blend of opinions in instances involving GALs. General Ellzey says, “They are particularly effective and efficient as a means of directing a party’s resources to that neutral third party to evaluate the entire set of factors relating to determination of parental responsibility and time-sharing.” But Ellzey recollects a current case the place the GAL was “absolutely no help and merely regurgitated factual circumstances, subsequently failing to provide a recommendation in favor or against one side or the other.”

Lawyer Bruce Przepis says he’s acquired a “mixed bag” of opinions from GALs. “Although I believe in the program, it strikes me that a GAL has tremendous power in any given case.” The “elephant in the room” is the propensity for a GAL to have a bias towards one mother or father or the different, based mostly on the GAL’s private opinion of character or look, relatively than the information of any given case. Przepis says, “Lately I have cautioned clients on agreeing to a GAL because my experience is that if the GAL doesn’t like your client, the case is in trouble. Let’s face it, its human nature… So, I have come to view such an appointment as a risky endeavor.”

I met with a former GAL volunteer who wished to remain nameless on account of her present place in an undisclosed business and she or he says there are critical issues with the program, despite its commendatory foundation. We’ll discuss with her as Diane.

Diane began volunteering with GAL in the 5th Circuit earlier this yr and as a consequence of her background in the regulation and human providers, she assumed her qualifications would make her a superb candidate for helping youngsters. However she shortly came upon that her credentials were not welcome, nor would they profit her instances in courtroom. “The program will take anyone,” says Diane. “The training they give is two days for a total of 16 hours, where we learn how to fill out paperwork.” Diane goes on to elucidate that age issues when choosing GAL volunteers. “They want retired citizens and very young college students, preferably those who just graduated high school.” I requested why this was a “requirement,” she replied, “Because they want people who will drink the “Kool-Aid.” Diane explains that when a GAL completes their report on a toddler, they input their opinion right into a database for a supervisor to evaluate. Usually the supervisor heavily redacts the report and “Makes sure it says what they want it to say.” This annoyed Diane and after just some brief months of watching selections go utterly the other way of her suggestion, she referred to as it quits. “A lot of GALs burn out because the courts never use their recommendations.” Diane says, “Guardians are just an illusion.”

I requested GAL Data Custodian Debra Ervin if the group retained data on the quantity instances that showed favorable outcomes based mostly on a mum or dad’s gender. Ervin says those data will not be collected, but she did present the ratio of female to male GAL volunteers, statewide. Presently, there are 8,990 female and a couple of,232 male GAL volunteers engaged on dependency instances in Florida.

I carried out a social media survey of residents who’ve either worked or have been concerned in instances that required a GAL’s participation. Public opinion didn’t stray far from that of professional lawyer’s opinions.

Karen Basenback is a foster mom who believes in the program. “I have taken in three grandchildren and used GAL for the past 4 years. I haven’t had any issues at all with them. They have been wonderful and always look out for the welfare of the kids. They have always asked if I needed anything for the children and they ask questions about the parents and document everything I say. I highly recommend them especially for the voice of the children.”

Deb Howard says, “I proudly served as a GAL in Hernando County. A tremendous program but of course underfunded!”

Crystal Foxworth-burrell says, “I’m going through a very lengthy adoption right now and have had several, they have all been more than wonderful, always had the best interest of the child at heart and I appreciated everything they did for us. I would highly recommend having one, depending on the situation you are dealing with at the time.”

Jessie Weiner disagrees in half and says, “The evaluation was partially accurate but there was no regard for addressing the mother’s purposeful creation of child psychological abuse.”

problems with the florida gal programKelly Avery believes GALs are usually not impartial. “We had two guardian ad litems appointed who have been legal professionals. They have been very pro fathers, so of course they have been biased. The last one giving my ex legal advice.

Malissa Ann Blankenship voiced considerations over background checks for GAL Volunteers. “They need to screen their volunteers better… Some are crazy and have been arrested but somehow managed to volunteer. Some have domestic violence issues monthly themselves but still can be a GAL? Do your research on the person they assign you is all I’m saying!”

Jewell Anne Ullven vehemently opposes the use of GALs and says, “No. Doesn’t work. GALs are biased based on their own life experiences, and how well each parent can manipulate them. If you’re not a manipulative person, you won’t win the best for your child.”

Lawyer Jennifer Schulte appears to agree that private bias could be issue in many instances and an Achilles’ heel for the program. “I had one GAL in two completely different cases ongoing at the same time. I represented the father in both cases. GAL had already been appointed, in both cases, when I was retained. Despite the fathers and facts of each case being drastically different (one dad had no license, no car, no job and in and out of jail; the other dad was a police officer, nice home, stable life), she, the GAL, literally recommended the EXACT SAME time-sharing plan in both cases!! Mom 60%; Dad 40%. Obviously, this was a great outcome for my unstable dad, but absolutely ridiculous for my stable police officer dad. Weather it was laziness or an automatic bias against dads – who knows – but clearly it was not unbiased,” says Schulte. Regardless of the wavering outcomes, Schulte still believes the GAL program is useful when used for the proper function and beneath the right details.