Guardian ad litem program in Florida draws scrutiny

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The head of Florida’s guardian ad litem program defended the agency’s efforts Tuesday to a Senate committee, following a report that said the organization’s funding has increased while the number of children it represents has dropped.

Alan Abramowitz, who has served as executive director of the program for more than a decade, pushed back against the report during an appearance before the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.

The report, issued last month by the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, or OPPAGA, identified a number of issues in the operation of the program, which receives state and local funds to represent abused, neglected and abandoned children in dependency cases.

While many other states use attorneys to represent children in cases involving issues that range from the termination of parental rights to reunification of families, Florida’s guardian ad litem program relies heavily on trained volunteers, OPPAGA Health and Human Services staff director Laila Racevskis told the Senate committee on Tuesday.

The report found that the efficacy of the program was difficult to evaluate. Because data reported by the program and the Department of Children and Families do not match up, OPPAGA analysts were unable to ascertain exactly how long children in the guardian ad litem program remained in foster care and whether they were adopted or reunited with their parents.

The report also found that state funding for the program increased by 21 percent over five years, from $43.6 million in 2015-2016 to $52.9 million in 2019-2020. Local and federal funding for the program more than doubled over the same time period, the report found.

While the program staff has expanded to 848 employees and 13,231 volunteers, the number of children served by the program has declined, the report found. About 40,000 children were served in 2016-2017, compared to 36,506 in 2019-2020, according to the report. The program had 712 employees in 2015-2016.

Shortly before Tuesday’s committee meeting ended, Sen. Tom Wright, R-New Smyrna Beach, noted that the program’s “cost per child has gone up exponentially” since 2016.

“Maybe you can save the answer for the next time we meet,” Wright told Abramowitz. “Wow. We’ve got a lot more money. We’re serving less children. And we’ve got a bigger staff. Yeah.”

Without directly disputing the OPPAGA findings, Abramowitz took issue with the report. He said his office “never saw the report before it came out.”

“We would have loved to have gotten some time to go meet with them and talk more after we saw it and discuss those issues,” he told the committee.

When asked whether OPPAGA analysts had contacted his office, Abramowitz said, “We had meetings throughout and provided information, but that information didn’t make it into the report.”

The report also said that interviews with “stakeholders” -- including judges, attorneys and local guardian ad litem volunteers -- found “that the training and supervision volunteers and staff receive is sufficient; however some stakeholders believe training in additional areas would be beneficial.”

But Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, accused the report’s authors of “sampling bias” because lawyers for years have maintained that attorneys -- and not volunteers -- should represent children in dependency cases.

“You have a differential detection bias,” Brodeur said. “You have what could be case-selection bias.”

In a phone interview following Tuesday’s meeting, committee Chairwoman Lauren Book, D-Plantation, said she continues “to be deeply troubled by the things that the OPPAGA report uncovered.”

“As our committee has conversations with both sides on this issue, I know that there are members of my committee that are still not satisfied with the answers that we were given,” she told The News Service of Florida.

The report also found that the length of time children were served by the program increased from an average of 21 months in 2018 to an average of 24 months in 2019.

Black children tend to remain in out-of-home care longer than white children, with an average of 573 days for Black children, compared to an average 534 days for white children, the report showed.

Abramowitz acknowledged “there is a challenge” with a disproportionate number of children of color in the system.

“And we’ve been focused on that like a laser beam,” he said, adding that his agency “actually created a position of inclusion and diversity director, a guy named Calvin Martin in Putnam County.”

Martin won a “reunification hero” award from the American Bar Association last year, Abramowitz said.

“The one person I talk to, other than my direct reports, is that person, every Friday. He’s the one person I talk to every week,” he said.

But Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat who is Black, appeared skeptical.

“That’s the gentleman from Putnam County? I’m sorry. And he’s in charge, he’s the coordinator of diversity and inclusion?” Rousson asked.

“Yes, sir,” Abramowitz responded.

At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Book told Abramowitz and the committee that she and her panel will continue to delve into the program.

“This was our preliminary look at the issue, and we’re going to continue to drill down deep because I know there are a lot of questions,” she said.

About the Author: