Bill would expand funding for Guardian ad Litem Program

first_imgBill would expand funding for Guardian ad Litem Program April 1, 2002 Jan Pudlow Associate Editor Regular News Bill would expand funding for Guardian ad Litem Program Associate EditorWhy put a children’s legal advocacy program in the agency that deals with the elderly? Why risk independence by moving the Guardian ad Litem Program from the judiciary to the executive branch? Despite those concerns, SB 686 passed out of the Senate on third reading March 14.The bill was pending on the House special order calendar as this News went to press.The product of the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach, SB 686, at a cost of about $12 million, expands funding for the Guardian ad Litem Program. Now, despite a statutory mandate and a judge appointing them, guardians are only available for half of the abused and neglected children in need.“In fact, it doubles the funding so there will be no child in Florida unrepresented,” Burt said during the Senate floor debate on second reading March 13.The bill also clarifies when the guardian ad litem or an attorney is appointed in dependency proceedings and gives the court flexibility to adjust the representation of the child based on the age of the child and the child’s level of understanding, Burt said.While children’s advocates applaud increasing representation for children in dependency court, especially with a statutory mechanism in place to pay for legal representation of children, the sticking point was where to move the Guardian ad Litem Program. Now, the GAL program is housed at the Office of State Courts Administrator without a state director. SB 686 would move the GAL program to the Department of Elder Affairs, where a new executive director will be appointed by the governor. That executive director, who will serve for three years, will supervise a separate Statewide Public Guardianship deputy director and a separate Children’s Representation deputy director.“I am terribly concerned that we are going to not only remove the independence out of the Guardian ad Litem Program, which it now enjoys under the judicial branch, but also give it to an agency that has absolutely nothing to do with responsibility to children,” said Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Pembroke Pines.Echoing the position of Rep. Cindy Lerner, D-Miami, whose HB 629 dealing with a new home for the GAL Program had stalled in the House, Wasserman Schultz said it was best to heed the recommendation of the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. OPPAGA recommended the Guardian ad Litem Program be administered by the Judicial Administrative Commission, that now does the accounting procedures for the state attorneys, public defenders, and capital collateral lawyers.Also, Wasserman Schultz warned, the only state that houses its GAL program in the executive branch is South Carolina, “and right now they are going through chaos.”She also reminded senators of when the Department of Children and Families was the old HRS, where programs for both the elderly and children were housed, and “that department was a fiasco.”Under SB 686, she said, “I don’t really understand how the Guardian ad Litem Program will get the independence it needs and get the attention it deserves.”Burt responded: “Well, it will get the attention it deserves because it will have a gubernatorial appointment in charge. That’s number one: The person running it will not be an employee of any other state agency. I think that you’re hung up over the administrative housing of the agency, as opposed to the operational aspects of the agency.”Burt detailed how his Judiciary Committee wrestled with other alternatives, including using the public defender’s office or the attorney general’s office to administer the program, but there were inherent conflicts of interest, just as there currently are with the judges who must decide a child’s fate also administering an advocacy program that represents that child.“It didn’t make any sense to us to put a commission in charge of it, which was the other alternative,” Burt said. “And it didn’t make sense to us to have this float sort of in never-never land.”Sen. Ron Silver, D-N. Miami, said he, too, wanted to leave the program in the judiciary, but learning about the current conflicts changed his mind.“Let me just tell you this: You have to put it somewhere,” Silver said. “I would hope that you don’t deal with the nomenclature, but you deal with what we are trying to do. We are trying to provide advocacy for children.. . . Look, I’m as frustrated as anybody else about where to put this. But this seems to be the best place of all the alternatives. I’m just suggesting to you: Let’s give this a chance.”last_img

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