Who Decides the Fate of Your Children in Dependency Court?
Former Guardian Ad Litem Says “Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid”
By Tom Lemons, Legal Correspondent | July 17, 2019
According to information provided by the Florida Guardian Ad Litem Foundation, the program has represented over 200,000 children since it was established over 35 years ago. The Guardian Ad Litem program, or GAL, is made up of over 10,000 volunteers who represent abused, neglected and abandoned children in dependency cases. Each of Florida’s 20 Judicial Circuits operates an independent branch of the GAL program. According to the latest statistics, GAL has represented over 39,792 children, so far this year. Records indicate that the program received $52,403,790 in funding for 2019-2020 and that CASA, a national organization that supports and promotes court-appointed advocates for abused or neglected children, has provided funding in the past.Although most GALs are appointed in cases where severe forms of abuse are alleged by one party or the other, there are times when a judge can appoint a GAL at the request of counsel to act as a “voice” for minor children. Ayo & Iken Attorney Jason Ponder says, “In most high conflict cases the appointment of a GAL can be very useful to break the “hard line” stances of the parties. In a way it can also allow the attorneys to work on the case with knowledge from an independent party who addresses issues solely related to the children. I have had GAL’s file motion on their own behalf to deal with issues they felt were necessary regarding children.” Attorney Howard Iken says it is important to understand the difference between a Guardian Ad Litem in a dependency case and one in a family law case. A dependency case will much more likely involve a GAL and they have a role more rigidly defined by statute. They tend to be volunteers that receive in-depth training. A family law GAL is more often than not a local attorney and is sometimes compensated by the hour. But the goal of every GAL is similar – “to give a voice to the child.”
In an effort to better understand the GAL program and determine just what makes it tick, I contacted the State GAL Director Alan Abramowitz in Tallahassee. Abramowitz forwarded my inquiry to Margie Menzel, GAL’s Communications Director, to schedule an interview. While waiting on a response from Tallahassee, I sent requests to Diana Gisonni of the 5th Circuit, Tabitha Lambert of the 13th Circuit, and representatives of the 12th and 6th Circuits, to try and schedule on-camera interviews. Gisonni and Lambert were more than happy to oblige, and we were on track to meeting last week – but suddenly and without warning, the program directors shut down my request, like turning off a light switch.
Tom, we appreciate your interest in Guardian ad Litem, but respectfully decline to conduct interviews about the Program through your law firm. If you care to submit specific questions, I’ll do my best to answer them in writing.
Thank you for your request and patience. Your interest in the Guardian ad Litem program is
much appreciated. However, at this time, we are deferring to Margie Menzel, our Director of
Director of Recruitment & Training
5th Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program
And this one from Tabitha Lambert which began as a prodigiously warm welcome but abruptly turn ice-cold after she spoke to Margie Menzel.
July 10, 2019 at 10:40 a.m.
I’m happy to help. I’ve also included Mariela Ollsen, who is the director in Pinellas/Pasco
counties. I’m sure either of us can help you out with your story.
I’m available most of Friday, if that works for you.
Tabitha Lambert, CPM
Less than 30 minutes later…
July 10, 2019 at 10:58 a.m.
Hi Mr. Lemons,
My schedule recently changed and I’m unavailable. Please coordinate an interview with Margie
Menzel, who is our communication director. Her number is 850-354-2046 and I’ve copied her
on this email.
Of course, the unexpected snubbing resulted in an email to Director Alan Abramowitz, who not surprisingly deferred my inquiry back to Margie Menzel without explanation.
What began as a simple informational piece about the GAL program, quickly turned into an exploratory mission as to why we were ostracized. My intrigue escalated after requesting opinions from our legal team and Ayo & Iken viewers – and the responses were not what I expected.
Ayo & Iken attorneys had mixed reviews on the value of using GALs in dependency cases, and most agreed that the premise is commendable but not infallible.
Attorney Jeana Vogel says, “I have mixed feelings about the program. I am often pessimistic about it in family law cases. A recent case in which I feel the GAL volunteer completely got her opinion wrong and overstepped, which greatly impacted the outcome, was a divorce case in Sarasota. However, I have had a few very positive experiences with GALs in family law cases, so I cannot say they are completely without merit.” Vogel believes judges lean towards appointing GALs when safety concerns exist for a child.
Attorney Howard Ellzey concurs with Vogel’s opinion and has experienced a blend of opinions in cases involving GALs. Overall Ellzey says, “They are particularly effective and efficient as a means of directing a party’s resources to that neutral third party to evaluate the entire set of factors relating to determination of parental responsibility and time-sharing.” But Ellzey recalls a recent case where the GAL was “absolutely no help and merely regurgitated factual circumstances, subsequently failing to provide a recommendation in favor or against one side or the other.”
Attorney Bruce Przepis says he’s received a “mixed bag” of opinions from GALs. “Although I believe in the program, it strikes me that a GAL has tremendous power in any given case.” The “elephant in the room” is the propensity for a GAL to have a bias against one parent or the other, based on the GAL’s personal opinion of character or appearance, rather than the facts of any given case. Przepis says, “Lately I have cautioned clients on agreeing to a GAL because my experience is that if the GAL doesn’t like your client, the case is in trouble. Let’s face it, its human nature… So, I have come to view such an appointment as a risky endeavor.”
I met with a former GAL volunteer who wished to remain anonymous due to her current position in an undisclosed industry and she says there are serious problems with the program, despite its commendatory foundation. We’ll refer to her as Diane.
Diane began volunteering with GAL in the 5th Circuit earlier this year and due to her background in the law and human services, she assumed her qualifications would make her an excellent candidate for helping children. But she quickly found out that her credentials were not welcome, nor would they benefit her cases in court. “The program will take anyone,” says Diane. “The training they give is two days for a total of 16 hours, where we learn how to fill out paperwork.” Diane goes on to explain that age matters when choosing GAL volunteers. “They want retired citizens and very young college students, preferably those who just graduated high school.” I asked why this was a “requirement,” she replied, “Because they want people who will drink the “Kool-Aid.” Diane explains that when a GAL completes their report on a child, they input their opinion into a database for a supervisor to review. In most cases the supervisor heavily redacts the report and “Makes sure it says what they want it to say.” This frustrated Diane and after just a few short months of watching decisions go completely the opposite direction of her recommendation, she called it quits. “A lot of GALs burn out because the courts never use their recommendations.” Diane says, “Guardians are just an illusion.”
I asked GAL Records Custodian Debra Ervin if the organization retained records on the number cases that showed favorable outcomes based on a parent’s gender. Ervin says those records are not collected, but she did provide the ratio of female to male GAL volunteers, statewide. Currently, there are 8,990 female and 2,232 male GAL volunteers working on dependency cases in Florida.
I conducted a social media survey of citizens who have either worked or were involved in cases that required a GAL’s participation. Public opinion didn’t stray far from that of professional attorney’s opinions.
Karen Basenback is a foster mom who believes in the program. “I have taken in three grandchildren and used GAL for the past 4 years. I haven’t had any issues at all with them. They have been wonderful and always look out for the welfare of the kids. They have always asked if I needed anything for the children and they ask questions about the parents and document everything I say. I highly recommend them especially for the voice of the children.”
Deb Howard says, “I proudly served as a GAL in Hernando County. A tremendous program but of course underfunded!”
Crystal Foxworth-burrell says, “I’m going through a very lengthy adoption right now and have had several, they have all been more than wonderful, always had the best interest of the child at heart and I appreciated everything they did for us. I would highly recommend having one, depending on the situation you are dealing with at the time.”
Jessie Weiner disagrees in part and says, “The evaluation was partially accurate but there was no regard for addressing the mother’s purposeful creation of child psychological abuse.”
Kelly Avery believes GALs are not impartial. “We had two guardian ad litems appointed who were lawyers. They were very pro fathers, so of course they were biased. The last one giving my ex legal advice.
Malissa Ann Blankenship voiced concerns over background checks for GAL Volunteers. “They need to screen their volunteers better… Some are crazy and have been arrested but somehow managed to volunteer. Some have domestic violence issues monthly themselves but still can be a GAL? Do your research on the person they assign you is all I’m saying!”
Jewell Anne Ullven vehemently opposes the use of GALs and says, “No. Doesn’t work. GALs are biased based on their own life experiences, and how well each parent can manipulate them. If you’re not a manipulative person, you won’t win the best for your child.”
Attorney Jennifer Schulte seems to agree that personal bias can be factor in many cases and an Achilles’ heel for the program. “I had one GAL in two completely different cases ongoing at the same time. I represented the father in both cases. GAL had already been appointed, in both cases, when I was retained. Despite the fathers and facts of each case being drastically different (one dad had no license, no car, no job and in and out of jail; the other dad was a police officer, nice home, stable life), she, the GAL, literally recommended the EXACT SAME time-sharing plan in both cases!! Mom 60%; Dad 40%. Obviously, this was a great outcome for my unstable dad, but absolutely ridiculous for my stable police officer dad. Weather it was laziness or an automatic bias against dads – who knows – but clearly it was not unbiased,” says Schulte. Despite the wavering outcomes, Schulte still believes the GAL program is beneficial when used for the proper purpose and under the right facts.