From Alan Abramowitz, Statewide GAL Executive Director
Good Budget and Legislative News
Thanks so much to all the volunteers, staff, non-profits, and other supporters of the Guardian ad Litem Program. You have created a situation which makes our Legislative Session so much more successful and meaningful. This year we did not have a Legislative Affairs Director to fight on our behalf. This decision was made because as I have been meeting with the Governor’s staff, legislative staff, and legislators, the work has already been done showing the importance of the GAL Program to children.
The GAL Foundation employs Monica Rodriguez; she lobbies on behalf of the GAL Program and does a fantastic job. Many of these same people I have talked with are GAL’s, have family members who are GAL’s, or have already met with you about the good work you are doing. Many also have talked and heard from children about the impact the guardian ad litem has had on their lives. Others have heard from adoptive parents, including those in the legislature, who were able to adopt a child and identified the guardian ad litem as a major force in having the adoption occur. The Governor has been extremely supportive, including offering technical assistance to our Program. The legislative leadership has been so receptive that top leaders have checked on me throughout the process to make sure the Program was able to continue to expand its volunteer base to move closer to 100% representation. Although the legislative session is over, we are still waiting for bills to be signed into law that impact children and the Program. Below are some items that have a direct impact on the Guardian ad Litem Program.
Budget: It was interesting this year as our budget was to remain the same as last year by both the House Justice Appropriations Committee and the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee. Although our budget was closed last week, when the Budget Conference Committees were coming to agreements on the budget, the House made an additional offer of $300,000 nonrecurring general revenue funds provided to the GAL Program with the Orange County Bar Association. In addition, the Senate made an offer of $1.5 million nonrecurring general revenue funds to the GAL Program. Both offers were accepted and both legislative bodies included this additional $1.8 Million dollars in the GAL budget starting July 1, 2012.
This means next year that the GAL Program will have an additional $1.8 million to serve children in contract dollars. Although it is nonrecurring, it gives us an opportunity to make an impact in expanding our ability to be a voice for children. At this point, it will go to the Governor’s Office.
In addition, Healthy Families had $2 million restored. This is an important evidence based prevention program that assists families so they will not come to the attention of the child protection system. Any funding that allows families to have resources to ensure their children are safe will assist the GAL.
Conforming Legislation: Senate Bill 1960 is also an important bill for the GAL Program. The two areas that impact the GAL Program are the following; first, this conforming bill will add legislative language that states the following, “In an effort to promote normalcy and establish trust between a court-appointed volunteer guardian ad litem and a child alleged to be abused, abandoned, or neglected under this chapter, a guardian ad litem may transport a child. However, a guardian ad litem volunteer may not be required or directed by the program or a court to transport a child.”
This legislation arose out of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee as a result of the successful Transportation Pilot Project some volunteers who wanted, had the option to transport children. It was important we codify the protection of the volunteers. This legislation, if passed, would make it law that no GAL would ever be required to transport a child from the Program or the courts. It was supported unanimously in the Senate and House.
The second important piece of this legislation is for the purpose of encouraging counties to allocate staff for the GAL Program. Some counties do this around the state; we had an opportunity to work with these counties to create a situation where more counties would be encouraged to provide positions to the GAL Program. In particular, we are adding indemnification language which would protect counties that give the GAL Program positions to allow us to expand our representation of children. This makes sense to our Program since the persons would be hired, supervised, managed, and terminated by the Executive Director of the Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office. Persons employed would not be counted in any process to determine allocation of funds by the GAL Program to the 20 Circuits. My commitment has been to counties (and non-profits that support the GAL Program), that the GAL Program will not remove dollars from a community if the county or non-profit step up and provide additional resources to the GAL Program. This will encourage counties and non-profits to further support the GAL Program and allow those counties who are inspired to get to 100% representation of children with a voice to do so.
Independent Living – There was great concern during Session that the age of Road to Independence would be reduced from 23 yrs of age to 21yrs of age. The House was going to reduce it to 21yrs of age but the Senate held firm at 23 yrs of age. The Senate recommendation held, therefore the Road to Independence Program has not changed. Although there was another proposal, I did not pass. The age of Road to Independence with remain at 23.
Termination of Parental Rights – DCF filed a child protection bill this year, Senate Bill 2044. This bill amends the central abuse hotline procedures to provide that the hotline may accept a call from a parent or legal custodian seeking assistance for themselves when the call does not meet the statutory requirement of abuse, abandonment or neglect; allows DCF to discontinue an investigation if it is determined that a false report has been filed; requires DCF to maintain one electronic child welfare case file for each child; requires child protective investigators to determine the need for immediate consultation with law enforcement personnel, child protection teams, and others prior to the commencement of an investigation; requires that monitoring of protective investigation reports are used to determine the quality and timeliness of safety assessments, and provides specific circumstances in which the court may order maintaining and strengthening families as a permanency goal in a child’s case plan when the child resides with a parent. The bill has passed and is waiting for the Governor.
The GAL Program took the lead in proposing legislation added to this bill that replaces the strict mathematical formula with a qualitative, child-focused analysis under certain circumstances when a parent of a child is incarcerated in a state or federal correctional institution. The GAL Program advocated for this new law since using a purely mathematical formula to determine termination of parental rights (TPR) of an incarcerated parent does not support the provisions of chapter 39, F.S., where the primary consideration is for permanency and the best interest of the child. The bill provides for consideration of the child’s age and need for a permanent and stable home in determining whether the period of time a parent is incarcerated constitutes a significant portion of the child’s minority, and specifies that the period of time begins on the date that the parent enters into incarceration. The judicial review would begin on the date the parent entered the correctional institution rather than at the time of the filing of the TPR petition.
Although there is so much more legislation and budget items that impact the children we represent, we wanted you to know some of the highlights. More will follow in the coming days as the Governor signs into law legislation that impacts children and our Program.
Thanks so much for your support and commitment to children.