Guardian ad Litem program wins a legislative victory

A new state law will improve the flow of information from court cases involving abused and neglected children, who are involved in both dependency and delinquency cases.

Guardian ad Litem volunteers are involved primarily in dependency cases, which means the children are in the legal system because they need a safe, permanent home.

Delinquency cases deal with children who have been charged with committing a crime.

Florida State Rep. Tyler Sirois, left, and State Sen. Aaron Bean stand at the side of Gov. Ron DeSantis after he signed into law a bill aimed at improving information to help abused or neglected children being helped by Guardian ad Litem. (Courtesy of Guardian ad Litem)

Sometimes kids leave an abusive home and are placed with relatives or a foster family in another district.

Some abused youth may later find themselves in legal troubles.

“We have a lot of children who we call crossover kids,“ explained Mariela Ollsen, director for the Sixth Judicial Circuit for the Guardian ad Litem program. “What this is going to do is allow our volunteer to be a part of those crucial stages in the delinquency so that they know what’s happening.”

Guardian ad Litem pushed for a better flow of information and the program’s voice was heard.

The new law requires that pertinent information about the child be shared in both cases – even when each is held in different circuits or counties. The new law received overwhelming bipartisan support in Tallahassee.

Under the new law, Guardian ad Litem volunteers and attorneys can now present dependency matters before a delinquency judge in order to provide a broader picture of the child’s situation – which they hope will result in a ruling that’s in the child’s best interest.

Because of child-attorney confidentiality, a Guardian volunteer may not be privy to all information. But, based on the trusting relationship with the child, the volunteer can still speak in the child’s favor.

The Department of Juvenile Justice also will be required to notify the dependency court of any updates, such as a youth being transferred to another juvenile justice facility.

“You have two different circuits who are trying to make decisions based on the same child,” Ollsen said.

She also noted that the Sixth Judicial Circuit was already one step ahead because it has attorneys that advocate for the youth in both court cases and has “unified family court systems, so one judge listens to everything involving the child.”

Now, the program can better advocate on a child’s behalf throughout Florida’s 20 circuit courts – some of which oversee multiple counties.

The legislation also allows guardianship over youth to be granted either in the district where the dependency case occurred, or the district where the child lives.

Before the new law, guardianship could only be filed where the child was currently living.

The new measure also allows guardians to be assigned in either districts to youth deemed as ‘incapacitated.’

These are young folks who have reached age 18 but may need help managing finances or daily routines.

The new law will help Guardian ad Litem in its efforts to find a safe, permanent home for children, Ollsen said.

“We want them to have a better future. The best way to do that is making sure that everybody has the information necessary,” Ollsen said.

Published June 12, 2019

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