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Florida Guardian ad Litem Funding Vital to Helping Neglected Kids

As Florida faces a financial crisis, our Florida Legislature is forced to grapple with ways to balance the budget. I recognize there are no good options for the Legislature, but some cuts create more problems than others.

The Florida Guardian ad Litem Program — whose staff and volunteer counselors and attorneys help the state’s neglected children and foster care youth — is facing severe budget cuts by the Florida Legislature that it cannot sustain. The Florida Senate has proposed an 8% cut in GAL funding and the Florida House proposal would cut 23% – or $7.6 million.

These cuts would result in a potential loss of 152 employees, or more than a third of the staff needed to recruit, screen, train, coach and mentor the nearly 5,700 volunteer child advocates who represent the best interests of abused, abandoned and neglected children caught in our dependency system.

The result of these cuts would be to silence the independent voice of the Guardian ad Litem on thousands of cases. Currently many volunteers represent more than one child but more volunteers are needed at every child needs a voice in their own case.

Even before these proposed cuts, estimates are that of the state’s 30,000 foster care or dependency case children, one in five needs and has no legal representation–that’s 6,000 children who are involved in dependency proceedings. This means that with the proposed cuts, as many as 10,000 children will have no means to have their voices heard in the system. They will have no advocate protecting their rights to a safe place to live, a foster home or family free from neglect, a quality education and healthcare, and a permanent home where they can live their lives like normal children. They will have no adult out there speaking on their behalf.

We already know from studies that when children have representation, the average length of stay in foster care drops by more than 50%. In the end, any budgetary cuts to GAL program will be met with increases in the budget for the Department of Children & Family Services and medical and mental health services through the Agency for Health Care Administration.

I strongly believe that every child cast into the child welfare system needs and deserves representation, most children benefit from a lay volunteer professionally supervised by the GAL program’s employees and staff attorneys, some children have legal needs that, in our opinion require an attorney.  Whether by lay volunteer or by paid or pro bono attorney, every child must have his or her voice heard in the dependency case process. Every foster child must be represented.

I am asking Legislators to understand that we must not lose ground in the fight to protect those who cannot protect or speak for themselves. We need to protect the GAL program in order to save children’s lives now and to avoiding paying many millions of dollars in the future.

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