In a doublewide trailer, eight people sit at desks clustered into two groups, talking and arguing with each other. They look to the teacher for help when they get stuck.
The scene looks a whole lot like a high school classroom.
But the students here aren’t taking world lit. They’re adults learning how to advocate for kids through the Guardian Ad Litem Program.
So it’s kind of appropriate, this flashback to childhood - Ad litems are supposed to be the voice of kids when there are questions about abuse or neglect.
These bankers, real estate agents, teachers make recommendations to a judge about whether or not a kid should stay with his or her biological parents or be put in some other living situation.
Volunteers have to go through 30 hours of training. They learn about the legal process, what kinds of services are available for families, and tips on how to be culturally sensitive.
“We’re all very much aware that its not going to be just “oh we’re just going to hang out and going to mentor these kids,” said Ingrid Gonzalez, a newly minted volunteer.
“That's not what the program is. So were coming into it with an understanding that this could be very difficult but I think we all have the heart to say you know what its work worth doing.”
Protecting the state’s kids has been a political hot topic for months, in reaction to a recent Miami Herald investigation into hundreds of child deaths. This Spring, state legislators passed a bill to beef up the ad litem program, adding lawyers to the people standing up for kids in cases of abuse in neglect.
That bill right now sits on Gov. Rick Scott’s desk. Until then, volunteers remain a main voice for children.
And in order for them to form a recommendation -- each ad litem volunteer works with the case manager and a staff lawyer to sort through all the files and interviews.
Patricia Abaroa is the volunteer coordinator for the guardian ad litem program in Miami-Dade County. She says, while caseworkers may have 40 different families to juggle at once - ad litems have one case at a time.
“You’re one person and you may have a case with 2 kids but you just have, you commit your time solely to those 2 kids and they just end up they have your full attention pretty much,” she said.
For this crop of volunteers, this was their final class. They ended the training feeling like they had the support and the resources to do a good job.
But their lack of professional training has people like Howard Talenfeld concerned. Talenfield is president of an advocacy organization called Florida’s Children First.
“The ideal model is that there be a guardian and lawyer in every case,” he said.
The bill that passed in Tallahassee would mean lawyers would also be assigned to some kids. According to the ad-litem program, if the law passes, it will provide lawyers to about 10 percent of those in the system.
But one guardian, one lawyer, one case is a goal Talenfeld aims to reach. That's not the way it is now, he said.
“Those lawyers may have 100 cases they really can’t do the job of a specially and uniquely representing individual children because they don't meet with these children outside of the courtroom,” Talenfeld said.
A lawyer can wade through benefits like Medicaid in ways that Ad litems simply aren’t trained to do. Or fight against being forced to take certain types of medication, especially for mental illness -- in cases where they might not need it, Talenfeld said.
“It sometimes takes extraordinary efforts to figure out a child’s rights in school, a child’s rights through the dependency process it’s the life of a child that’s at stake,” he said.
Although the Guardian ad litem program is held up as an example of what works in child advocacy, it is in a time of transition. Here are some basics.
What's the program all about?
Depending on their circumstances, most kids referred to the Department of Children and Families are appointed a guardian ad litem. They're not part of DCF, but ad litems advocate for the best interests of a child in dependency courts.
Proceedings in this court determine where a child will live. Children may be put in foster care, up for adoption or placed with another family member. The court can also decide to place the child back with a parent if she or he goes through any number of treatment, training, or therapy sessions.
Part of what determines the outcome of that proceeding is the ad litem’s recommendation. Because of this semi-legal status, they can talk to teachers, doctors, therapists, family members, case workers or anyone else who may have an impact on the child’s well-being.
Even though they’re only required to visit with the kid once a month — which isn’t a lot considering the gravity of their assignment — many ad litems visit more.
An ad litem volunteer works with the case manager and a staff lawyer to sort through all the files and interviews, but those case managers and lawyers have dozens of cases. Ad Litems have one case at a time.
But they don’t necessarily have any professional training. Though some happen to be lawyers during the day, often these are these are teachers, realtors, and homemakers.
How do volunteers become guardians ad litem?
1. Hopeful volunteers fill out a short application showing interest and submit written character references.
2. A staff person interviews each applicant to make sure he or she is suitable for the program.
3. Volunteers complete 30 hours of class training, which includes lectures, group work and court observation. The training teaches volunteers about the legal process, what kinds of services are available for kids and parents, and tips on how to be culturally sensitive.
A new pilot program, though, is changing the focus of the training to incorporate more hands-on experience. The new training includes self-directed online tutorials, class lectures, and partnering with an experienced guardian ad litem on a case.
This change comes in part due to feedback from guardian ad litems who felt nervous about taking on their first case without any real-world experience under their belts.