Guardians ad Litem ‘speak for the child

Guardians ad Litem ‘speak for the child


Jul 1st, 2018 · by  Matteo Tullio · Comments: 0

The State of Florida Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Program is a network of professional staff and community advocates, partnering to provide a strong voice in court and positive systemic change on behalf of Florida’s abused and neglected children. There are currently GAL Programs in all 20 judicial circuits in Florida.

The program’s mission is simple and clear, “I am for the Child.” The vision statement from the program to accomplish their mission reads, “The Florida Guardian ad Litem Program will continue to be a powerful and effective voice advocating for the best interests of Florida’s abused, abandoned and neglected children and be recognized and respected as a partnership of community advocates and professional staff. To the fullest extent possible, this vision will be realized through volunteers who will advocate as Guardians ad Litem for the children they serve.”

According to the GAL Program 2018 Annual Report, when a child is abused, abandoned or neglected and cannot remain at home in a healthy, safe environment, he or she is removed and a court case begins. The GAL Program is appointed by the judge to represent the child’s best interest and is the only party in the case that focuses exclusively on the child.

Florida’s GAL Program represents the best interests of children alleged to be abused, abandoned or neglected who are involved in court proceedings. This means advocacy for things the law says the child is entitled to, such as a permanent home within a year, and working to ensure child-centered decisions are made by having a thorough understanding of the facts and the child. GALs visit children regularly to understand their circumstances, wishes and needs, and to explain the process in a way they can understand. GALs give children a voice and help them find their own.

The GAL Program uses a team approach to represent children using GAL volunteers, child advocate managers and best-interests attorneys. GAL volunteers bring a community-based, common sense approach to children’s cases. They are supervised and supported by child advocate managers who help them navigate the complex dependency system. Best-interests attorneys provide essential legal counsel, attend hearings and depositions, negotiate outside of the courtroom and take on appeals. The unique perspective and expertise of each team member complements the others and all are critical in advocating for the best interests of children.

GAL volunteers are the eyes and the ears of the court providing firsthand accounts of the child’s situation at critical points in the case through reports to the judge. The GAL gives the child a voice and helps the child find his or her own voice unlike other dependency stakeholders with caseloads of many children – the GAL volunteer serves two children at a time on average. This enables GAL volunteers to get to know their children, visit their homes and schools, and develop a relationship with each child. Having a firsthand understanding of the child enhances the GAL team’s advocacy because the case can be seen from the child’s perspective and advocacy built around the child’s unique needs. The GAL Program has over 170 lawyers representing children’s best interests. Legal advocacy of the best interests of children must be well-informed, proactive and tailored to the unique needs of each child. GAL best-interests attorneys advocate for things like expedited permanency, compliance with statutory time frames, stability in placements and schools, appropriate healthcare, including mental health treatment, visitation, involving children in court hearings when it is in their best interests, and normalcy activities.


The GAL Program’s Appellate Team litigates in all of Florida’s appellate courts. The GAL Program uses appellate advocacy to make systemic changes for children’s best interests. The GAL appellate team has coordinated litigation to make case law more child-centered in the area of adoption intervention and in the constitutional analysis of least restrictive means. The decisions of the appellate courts affect all children, and the GAL Program ensures children’s legal interests are at the forefront in appeals, appearing in over 580 appellate cases in 2017.

The GAL Program advocates for systemic improvements for the thousands of children it represents by championing legislation that furthers children’s best interests. The GAL Program worked with legislators to pass laws allowing children to use facility and therapy dogs in dependency court, to give foster and adoptive parents free access to state parks, and to make permanent the Keys to Independence Program, which helps kids in out-of-home care get driver licenses. In 2018, the GAL Program is advocating to improve the quality of representation in dependency court and to expedite permanency for children through bills to streamline the identification of legal fathers and more meaningfully engage incarcerated parents in case plans. In 2017, the GAL Program expanded pro bono opportunities in its “Defending Best Interests” initiative. Attorneys volunteer to write the legal argument in a child’s case on appeal with support from the GAL Program. The initiative has received enthusiastic support, especially from the Appellate Practice Section of The Florida Bar. Attorneys help children reach permanency by defending judicial determinations of best interests, children benefit from advocacy by some of Florida’s top lawyers, and the state saves money.

Section 39.01305 authorizes appointment of attorneys for certain children with special needs, such as a developmental disabilities diagnosis. The GAL Program must attempt to find attorneys to serve pro bono, and if a volunteer attorney cannot be found, an attorney from a registry is appointed. The GAL Program is working to improve the number and quality of attorneys representing children. The GAL Program provides training opportunities to registry attorneys, including providing scholarships to an annual conference focused on topics unique to these children. The GAL Program is also working to remove barriers for pro bono attorneys to serve through legislation that will enable volunteer attorneys to have due process costs paid by the state. The GAL Program is also collaborating with The Florida Bar Foundation using its Pro Bono Matters website to more effectively identify pro bono attorneys who are interested in representing children with special needs.

The GAL Program is fortunate to be supported by a not‑for‑profit organization in each of the 20 judicial circuits. These organizations provide critical support to a wide range of GAL Program initiatives, such as volunteer appreciation events, securing grants and even employing staff. They also give invaluable assistance to the children represented by the GAL Program from sports equipment to clothing, and even paying for services such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) when a provider cannot or will not pay.

Speak Up for Kids is the non-profit organization for the 15th Judicial Circuit whose sole purpose is to support the GAL program in Palm Beach County by funding projects and needs that are not supported through other sources. Their website states that in Palm Beach County there are nearly 1,400 children involved in dependency court proceedings and that there are nearly 300 children every year that require the voice of a GAL volunteer to speak for the child’s best interest. If you wish to donate or make contact with the organization, their office is located at 205 North Dixie Highway, Suite, 2.2100, West Palm Beach FL 33401, and can also be contacted via telephone 561-408-7779 or email at

Approximately 11,022 GAL volunteers have given over 258,555 hours of their time, driven 2,211,648 miles and have represented 38,332 children so far this year.

If you would like to learn more about becoming a volunteer Guardian ad Litem, visit, or contact the 15th Judicial Circuit Office – located in the Palm Beach County Courthouse at 205 North Dixie Highway, Suite 4.1100 Juvenile Justice Wing, in West Palm Beach, FL 33401 – via telephone at 561-355-2773. You can also email or call 561-355-6224. The 15th Judicial Circuit’s program solely encompasses the county of Palm Beach. The circuit director is Michelle Canady.

Not only is there a volunteer aspect but also career opportunities. The GAL Program is seeking hard-working, dedicated individuals who want to make a difference in a child’s life. Qualified individuals are needed to provide best interests advocacy for abused, neglected and abandoned children. The GAL Program is an equal employment opportunity, drug free workplace employer. Background checks are required as well as driving record checks for positions requiring driving. To review GAL Program job listings, go to the Florida’s People First website. Once the page has loaded, search for “Guardian ad Litem” in the keyword search box. You can also search by location and job type. All available employment opportunities will be displayed.

Guardian ad Litem and Speak Up for Kids featured on a PODCAST!

The Guardian ad Litem Program is critical for kids in need to have someone that can advocate on their behalf. Ken Gottlieb and Christie Geltz from the Guardian ad Litem Program describe the great work they do along with their need for more volunteers like you. If you can find time to help kids in need this show is for you.

GAL program claims U.S. Supreme Court victory

GAL program claims U.S. Supreme Court victory

By Jim Ash
Senior Editor

Administrators with Florida’s Statewide Guardian ad Litem program are declaring victory after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a last-minute appeal from the biological father of a toddler born addicted to cocaine. 

The high court’s refusal to review the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s ruling in M.L. v. the Department of Children and Families cleared the way for the boy to be adopted by the St. Lucie foster parents he had come to regard as his family.  

Guardian ad Litem Executive Director Alan Abramowitz praises the justices for “putting the needs of the child first.”

“The child’s parents had basically abandoned him,” Abramowitz said. “But he was in a loving, stable foster home, and it was in his best interest to have a forever family.”

Victories are rare in a social services system responsible for 25,000 children in “out-of-home care” while it struggles to keep pace with a deadly opioid crisis. A new study by the Florida Coalition of Children found that 60 percent of child removals last year were due to substance abuse, a four-fold increase. 

And no victory is total, or clear cut, at least according to Florida Rural Legal Services attorney Andrea White, who represented M.L., the “purported biological” father.  

M.L. attended the birth and is listed on the birth certificate, but because the mother was married to someone else at the time — an estranged husband who had been out of the picture for six years — M.L.’s legal standing was practicaly nonexistent, White said.  

“The husband was the legal father because they were married. Period. End of story,” White said. “That’s Florida law and it’s really brutal on that point.”

The state removed the six-day-old infant from the mother after doctors saw signs of cocaine withdrawal. It was only after the state had placed the child in foster care, and was attempting to terminate the mother’s parental rights to facilitate an adoption, that M.L. tried to intervene.

A trial judge refused to allow it, saying M.L. was at the mercy of the estranged husband. But the Fourth DCA disagreed, at least on that point.

“While a biological father who is a stranger to an existing marriage into which a child is born has extremely limited rights, his ability to establish his paternity is not left entirely to the husband’s ‘whim,’” the judges wrote.

Instead, the three-judge panel ruled against M.L. because he waited too long.

Even though M.L. had joined the Florida Putative Father’s Registry, and obtained an affidavit from the estranged husband, the Fourth DCA noted that he had failed, after 18 months, to get a DNA test.

“The Florida Legislature has stated that ‘time is of the essence’ in these cases, and at the time of the prospective biological father’s motion to intervene, the child had spent his entire life in the dependency system,” the judges wrote.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the Fourth DCA’s ruling. 

White says the mother kept M.L. mostly in the dark, and that he believed she would reunite with the infant. He didn’t know about the adoption until after he was referred to legal aid and obtained counsel, White said.

“You know, our clients here are not always the most sophisticated,” White said. “They don’t understand the law, they don’t understand legal proceedings. This was his first child. . . . He kept asking the caseworkers to help him.”

White says she’s happy the child found a loving home, but the case has devastated her client and left her frustrated.  

“If he had had more money and acted more swiftly, he would have his child right now — or at least have the chance to have him,” White said. “Our job shouldn’t be to determine who the shiniest parent is, who has the better house, who has the nicer car.”

Abramowitz said the real tragedy would have been to tear the child from the only family he had ever known.

“I would say a parent’s ability to assert his or her right has a shelf life when an abused child is awaiting permanency.”

[Revised: 01-29-2018]

Yoga Studio gets participants moving for child advocacy

Yoga Studio gets participants moving for child advocacy

Delray Beach's newest yoga studio invited the community to partake in a communal dance experience meant to uplift the spirit called Yoga Trance Dance. The event raised funds for Speak Up for Life, a charity organization that advocates for abused and neglected children.

As participants entered the bright, spacious studio, the Yoga Trance Dance instructor Dee Greenberg asked them to form a circle in the center of the room. Greenberg led the group with guided relaxation and breathing exercises, full body dance warm-ups, and free dancing to high-energy African drum beats.

Studio owner Kelly Kerr of Family Yoga Zen Zone said she was thrilled to see all the joy, love and positive vibrations being expressed on the dance floor. Kerr plans to host the Yoga Trance Dance event continuously on a monthly basis, starting on the first Sunday of the month in February. As the participants exited the studio, Executive Director of Speak Up for Kids Coleen La Costa thanked each person for their participation and donation to help local children achieve their dreams in Palm Beach County.

SUCCESS - A Story to warm your heart!

SUCCESS - A Story to warm your heart!

As we approach the final days of 2017, I wanted to share a story of great success and determination. JaJuan came into care in 2010 when he was just 12 years old. In this video he describes his life prior to coming into the system and how he was determined to break the cycle. His Guardian ad Litem shared this video with me this morning and although his case closed out PG several years ago and she lives in PA, they are very close and she is one of his biggest cheerleaders.

As Supervising attorney in Palm Beach County at the time, I remember this case very well. I spent a lot of time with the volunteer (also our recruiter back then) trying to figure out how to break the cycle for these kids. Love and determination were the magic ingredients. His sister graduated HS and is attending FAMU and well you have to watch the video to hear his story as I really feel he tells it best….

You all make a huge difference in the lives of children. I hope this inspires you as we end 2017 and begin 2018. Anything is possible when you dedicate yourself to what is most important.

I hope you all have a very Happy Holiday Season and may the New Year bring many more success stories for our kids.

Thank you Whatchamacallit for Kids!!!

Thank you Whatchamacallit for Kids!!!

A happy place for kids — a toy store — was the setting for an event to aid children in a not-so-happy place.

Sally Ricca and Cindy Cook hosted a reception in honor of Speak Up For Kids, a support group of Palm Beach County’s Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) program.

>> SHINY SHOTS: Speak Up For Kids PBC

The reception took place Oct. 25 at Whatchamacallit’s for Kids, Cook’s toy store on South County Road.

The afternoon included cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and information about Speak Up For Kids and the Guardian Ad Litem program.

Speak Up for Kids is a non-profit support organization within the Guardian Ad Litem program that advocates for the interests of the children in the dependency court system.

More than 50 people attended.

Non-Profit of the Year – Speak Up for Kids of Palm Beach County

Non-Profit of the Year – Speak Up for Kids of Palm Beach County

Thanks to Speak Up for Kids of Palm Beach County, the GAL Program reached 100% representation in Belle Glade and Delray!  Speak Up for Kids always goes above and beyond for GAL, this year nearly doubling their budget in an effort to bring 100% representation to abused and neglected children in the 15th Circuit. Speak Up for Kids did the hard work of applying for a Victims of Crime Act grant, won the grant, and have employed four new Child Advocate Managers. This is in addition to another Child Advocate Manager they support!  Speak Up for Kids also provides two attorneys who allow the Program to represent more children.  Every year their commitment grows, and their hearts are open to every suggestion. “What do you need? Let’s see how we can make it happen,” they say.  Speak Up for Kids’ commitment to children has a positive impact every single day!

“Making Every Day Count for Children”

“Making Every Day Count for Children”

Martha Ahr

Mother, grandmother, court guardian and president of a nonprofit charity dedicated to reuniting families devastated by drug addiction, Martha Ahr’s life has been devoted to children.

She answers questions about her volunteer work in Florida’s court system with her own question. “Can you imagine the blow to a child taken from their family?” As a Guardian ad Litem in Palm Beach County’s 15th Judicial Circuit, Martha regularly deals with emotional upheaval. “I’m a friend that never leaves; I talk to the child, I make sure this child trusts me, can call me any time.” She focuses on building that trust and providing basic necessities. “I make sure they have what they need. I’ve learned it doesn’t matter how much a child has, as long as they have the basics.” Her greatest challenge is clarifying court rulings that impact a child’s life, “When explaining decisions made by the judge, what do I tell them?”

Community Foundation Grants Record $9.98 Million to Charities in Fiscal Year - Speak Up for Kids PBC a recipient of their kindness!

Community Foundation Grants Record $9.98 Million to Charities in Fiscal Year - Speak Up for Kids PBC a recipient of their kindness!

The Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties celebrated another year of monumental charitable giving.

Collectively, community impact funds of the Community Foundation granted nearly $1.6 million to nonprofit organizations in 2017.

In addition, the Community Foundation facilitated gifts of nearly $7 million to dozens of nonprofit organizations and $1.3 million in scholarships to 125 students. The Foundation currently has $160 million in assets under administration.

 “We’re here to serve as a resource and partner,” said Brad Hurlburt, president and CEO of the Community Foundation. “Our funding priorities for this year’s competitive grants included endowment building for our local nonprofit organizations and protecting and preserving the local environment. We also supported Achieve Palm Beach County, a collective impact initiative focused on enhancing the education system in Palm Beach County with other community partners.”

Community Impact grants were awarded through several charitable funds at the Foundation, including the Community Impact Fund; the Marie Graber Martens Fund and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fund.  

The competitive grant cycle opened last fall and the process included full proposals; site visits; committee evaluations and scoring; and final recommendations to the Community Foundation board in May.

Community impact grants are only one part of the Foundation’s annual grantmaking. Most grants are directed by donors to the causes they care about through their charitable giving funds at the Foundation.

The Foundation also has more than 100 scholarship funds, making it one of the largest providers of scholarships in the two counties. This year, the organization awarded a record $1.3 million to 125 local high school students.

For more information on the grants program, or about establishing a charitable fund at the Community Foundation, please call 561-659-6800 or visit

Speak Up For Kids of Palm Beach County was awarded $8,500 (Henry and Mildred Baldwin Memorial Endowment Fund and Jack Taylor Fund for Abuse and Neglected Children)


The Happiest of Welcomes Coleen! Speak Up for Kids PBC Loves you!

The Happiest of Welcomes Coleen! Speak Up for Kids PBC Loves you!

Speak Up for Kids of Palm Beach County has hired Coleen LaCosta as executive director. She has more than 25 years of experience working in child welfare. Prior to this position, LaCosta was director of development at Friends of Foster Children. She is on the board of the Florida State Foster Adoptive Parent Association and chair of Palm Beach County Unites for Children.