OUR NEWS + UPDATES
By Jim Ash
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?”
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 www.yourcommunityfoundation.org.
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)
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.