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Guardian ad Litem Takes Moderate Cut In Tough Budget Year. Many Florida Foster Children Will Lose Their Voice in Court

Florida’s Guardian ad Litem program emerged from this year’s Legislative budget process with fiscal cuts not as deep as originally feared.

The program’s funding will be reduced by $2.81 million. Proposed cuts were $7.6 million in the Florida House of Representatives, and $2.6 million in the Florida Senate.

In the Fiscal Year 2009-2010 Appropriations Act, the Florida Legislature will reduce the Guardian Ad Litem Program by $3.817 million, and then reinstate $1 million in non-recurring money. Therefore, if the Legislature does nothing for FY 2010-2011, the GAL will be cut by $1 million.

There were no simple or pleasant solutions. This was the toughest budgetary year many people have ever seen. Although advocates stepped in quickly to help negotiate a balanced approach to this tough budgetary call, many foster children will be left without Guardians.

But make no mistake: The cuts span the spectrum of child services.

Many state employees will take a pay cut. In a memo from Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon, he wrote that “…while the 2% pay cut to state employees who make more than $45,000 per year is disheartening, it does mean that 84% of DCF employees will NOT HAVE any pay cut, and there will be no layoffs or furloughs for this Department…”

In his memo, Secretary Sheldon continued that in the Child Welfare category:

–    Maintenance Adoption Subsidies were funded for growth at the level requested by the Department and current year non-recurring funds were restored.

–    Community Based Care core services were not reduced overall – $7 million of the $9.8 million non-recurring funds were restored, and an additional $4.5 million related to the annual Title IV-E Waiver 3% increase was provided.

–    Language allowing for roll-forward funds was restored for another year. Only $3 million of the $4.6 million in non-recurring funds for Independent Living was restored.

–    Budget authority was provided ($6 million) for an anticipated increase in child welfare funds related to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), though the actual amount is not yet known.

–    The state employee adoption program was not eliminated. And

–    The Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children (ICPC) passed (CS/HB 1409), paving the way for ICPC to take effect when ratified by sufficient states.

Funds for the July 2009 minimum wage increase were not provided, he wrote, “nor were any funds for growth. We will continue to review all funding strategies for this critical issue,” Secretary Sheldon concluded.

As with other programs, the GAL program will be forced to make hard decisions.

The final figure is still concerning  for many Florida’s foster children, who will no longer be remain protected by this vital program. The lesson learned is that child advocates must vigilantly unite to protect this critical program that provides a voice for children in foster care.

Now that the budgetary process has concluded, we in the child advocacy community should unite in thanking the House and Senate leadership for protecting the Guardian ad Litem program.

In other foster care news, a bill from Sen. Nan Rich (D-Miami-Dade and Broward) SB 1128 passed. The House bill is HB 783 by Rep. Kelly (R-Ocala). In part, this bill calls for education of children in shelter care or foster care. It provides conditions for the appointment by district school board or court of a surrogate parent for decision making regarding educational issues for a child who has or is suspected of having a disability.

Sen. Paula Dockery (R-Polk) sponsored SB 126, which unanimously passed the Senate and House and is awaiting the Governor Crist’s signature. Targeting confidential records of children and vulnerable adults, this bill requires case files of a child under supervision or custody of the DCF be completely and accurately maintained. The bill also makes clear those who can access the case file.

To learn more about the legislative session, visit the Guardian ad Litem Program’s Legislative Update site.

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