When Senate Bill 948 was heard in the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee on January 17, Senator Gayle Harrell (R- Stuart) asked four pertinent questions about the proposed change in representation of children in dependency court. She was clearly trying to drill down on what changes would occur. In what some have commented as a confusing exchange, audience members and those watching online walked away thinking no change would occur in the assignment of the Guardian ad Litem. This is FACTUALLY INCORRECT in spite of Harrell’s attempt.
This dialogue took place over the continuing saga of what appears to many to be ideological attempts to cast doubt about Florida’s remarkable Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program. More polite language is being used this year – but slights just the same – to make it sound as if more attorneys assigned by law and the tens of millions of dollars required would somehow magically improve Florida’s child welfare system.
No less than two misstatements were presented during the course of the hearing:
(1) It was said – like an annoying mantra – that GAL attorneys do not represent the child. This is FALSE. It’s a rather straight forward equation: The GAL volunteer (who does not have to be an attorney) is charged to represent the best interest of the child. The GAL attorney represents the GAL volunteer. Therefore, and there’s no other way to look at this equation, the GAL attorney is charged by statute and regulation and ethics of conduct to also represent the best interest of the child.
(2) It was said – another annoying mantra – the children would be taken care of because all the judge has to do is request any child receive a GAL volunteer. This reverses the GUARANTEE in current law, supported by literally tens of thousands of people working for decades, to ensure EVERY CHILD in dependency receives the appointment and attention of a GAL.
THE BIG SWITCH
To be clear, under CURRENT law, in addition to other guaranteed involvements, a GAL is appointed if a child is placed in out-of-home licensed care and is subject of dependency proceedings. Under CURRENT law, if the case warrants it, the Judge MAY appoint an attorney-ad-litem. Under PROPOSED law, the reverse would become true.
After three years of hearings, it is very unfortunate that these misstatements continue to be made.
American Children’s Campaign is opposed to THE BIG SWITCH as it removes the GAL from the child in cases for which their involvement is critical and shown to be beneficial. GALs and child advocates are aghast at the proposal and have spoken with passion at legislative hearings and through the media.
While maybe well intended (giving some benefit of the doubt), there appears to be bias in this debate against the value and benefits of GAL volunteers. Judges rely on GALs to give them the facts – the best interest of the child – and nothing but the facts. Guardrails exist in current law to guarantee attorney ad litems are appointed in cases where history shows they are needed and useful or when the judge determines it is important. It’s time to get past this annual debate and focus on what truly would improve the overall child welfare system.
The question not being asked: if the state were to invest an additional $50 to 100 million more in child welfare annually, where would we see the best outcomes? When asked that way, there would be few takers to “more attorneys” and a “statewide bureaucracy” to administer it.
The Florida Coalition for Children has pleaded publicly for $40 million to slow the bleeding of child welfare caseworker employment numbers resulting in spiraling caseloads. Senate President Simpson has called for child care stipend supplements to reduce foster family out-of-pocket costs for quality care, as well as for raising relative caregivers’ monthly support to the same level of foster families. Both of these are superior choices for wise investments to improve child welfare. And they are not the only outstanding needs on the list.
Children’s Futures Throttled Due to Unequal Justice
In our last Capitol Report, American Children’s Campaign questioned Florida Department of Juvenile Justice’s (DJJ) current priorities, which focused mostly on “small rocks” such as labor shortages and operational problems that didn’t include embedded policy issues.
The unequal justice foisted upon Florida’s children due to uneven administration of civil citations is a major policy that appears to have dropped off DJJ’s radar screen since the successive leadership of former Secretaries Wansley Walters and Christy Daly.
It’s been 10 years since Walters put civil citations on the policy map in a visible and powerful way. Law enforcement fought in the legislature for voluntary implementation, and not mandatory. Many reasons were given, some relevant and some not. Promises were made, however, to move forward and raise the low utilization rates.
In the intervening years, some jurisdictions have kept that promise forthrightly. Others eased into it. Some, however, have brazenly ignored it.
The glaring result, which DJJ does not appear to be bringing assertively to the attention of legislators, is that a child in one part of Florida will receive a civil citation while another child in the same county, or in another county, for the exact same misbehavior, gets saddled with an arrest record. Unequal justice? From our point of view, a resounding YES.
Confusing the matter is the more recent proliferation of juvenile diversion programs. These, however, should be reserved for more serious behaviors with opportunities for record expungement, such as Senator Keith Perry (R-Gainesville) is currently championing. Civil citations remain the backbone of reform because they are (1) effective; (2) save significant tax dollars; and (3) are not bureaucratically cumbersome nor of cost to families.
How pervasive is the unequal justice?
The best utilization of civil citation by county in Florida are: (1) Washington – 100%; (2) Pinellas – 98%; (3) Jackson and Manatee – 91%; (4) Clay (88%); and Miami-Dade, Monroe and Polk (86%).
Now for the lowest: Walton – 2%; Levy – 4%; Osceola and Okaloosa – 9%; Gadsden – 12%; Union – 13%; Baker – 14%; Franklin and Highlands – 15%.
All other Florida counties fall somewhere in between. Fair? Just? Decisions by any one of Florida’s 67 Sheriffs or untold number of municipal police departments or school districts determine whether a child has a criminal record or not.
Utilization in schools across the state are equally disparate. Highest use is (1) Hendry, Holmes, Monroe, Nassau, Putnam and Washington – 100%; (2) Pinellas – 99%; (3) Broward, Hernando and Manatee – 98%; (4) Orange, Polk, Sarasota and Wakulla – 97%; and (5) Equal to or Above 90% include Palm Beach and St. Johns – 96%; Collier – 95%; Duval – 93%; Clay, Lee and Marion – 92%; and Indian River – 90%.
Now for the dismal lowest: Levy and Osceola – 14%; Highlands – 31%; Glades – 33%; Lake – 43%; Baker – 50%. Absolutely shocking, if the DJJ Dashboard is up to date, 9 counties in Florida have 0% school-based utilization!
In addition to the glaring geographic disparities, there are gender and racial disparities with girls penalized more harshly than boys!
For Florida to legitimately claim it’s a law and order state, doesn’t there need to be Order to the Law?
Bills Heard Since our Last Capitol Report
HB 195, by Representative Smith (R-Winter Springs) made it through its second committee of reference, Justice Appropriations Subcommittee without a vote against. This bill continues the work of the bill that passed last session that allows for the expungement of juvenile records when a judge deemed the appropriate consequence diversion. In this version, forcible felonies and charges involving a firearm are excluded from the ability to expunge the record.
Bills that address one of the unintended consequences of the parental rights package passed last session, HB 817, by Representative Massullo (R-Ocala) and SB 1114 by Senator Bradley (R-Orange Park) would allow for physicians to provide emergency care to children in prehospital settings without parental consent if the delaying of treatment would endanger the health or physical well-being of the child. The bills passed through its first of two assigned committees in both the House and Senate, Professions & Public Health Subcommittee and Judiciary, unanimously.
HB 899, by Representative Melo (R-Naples) passed its second committee of reference, Children, Families & Seniors Subcommittee. The bill will expand reporting on involuntary examinations that start in school settings and requires providing information about available services to families in need.
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This Capitol Report is brought to you by Amanda Ostrander, Karen Bonsignori and Roy Miller