[Tallahassee, Florida] – What started out as an effort to find volunteers to provide advocacy for children in 25 cases has ballooned into a hugely successful partnership between Florida’s Guardian ad Litem Program and private attorneys which is yielding top notch legal advocacy and saving Florida hundreds of thousands of dollars. Today, that initiative, called the Defending Best Interests Project, was recognized by Florida TaxWatch and given one of the organization’s annual Prudential Productivity Awards.
Sponsored by Prudential, the Florida Lottery, AvMed Health Plans, and other groups including Publix and the NorthHighland Consulting Group, the Prudential Productivity Award highlights and rewards state employees who innovatively reduce costs and improve services for Florida taxpayers. The Defending Best Interests Project is a first-of-its-kind initiative which systematically uses pro bono legal services to represent children in Florida’s appellate courts. Since its inception, private attorneys have donated over 2200 hours. At the average hourly rate for attorneys of $290 per hour, the project gained the State of Florida nearly $650,000 of legal services.
At the heart of the project is the need to represent abused and neglected children. The Guardian ad Litem Program represents 25,000 children in dependency court, and when the child’s best interests require it, pursues appeals in Florida’s district courts of appeal and the Florida Supreme Court. Faced with an 11% spike in children coming into out-of-home care, the GAL Program looked for creative ways to serve these vulnerable children. The Defending Best Interest Project recruits attorneys to serve pro bono on appellate cases where a judicial determination of best interests is being challenged on appeal. The pro bono attorneys write the legal argument with help from the GAL Program. This has allowed the Program to shift resources from its appellate team to address the immediate needs of children in the trial courts.
The response has far exceeded the initial expectation of 25 cases, and now tops 100. GAL Executive Director Alan Abramowitz said, “Defending Best Interests has flourished thanks to the overwhelmingly positive response from Florida Bar members and in particular the Appellate Practice Section.” Private attorneys who have volunteered for the project include numerous board certified appellate specialists, former Law Clerks for Florida’s Supreme Court and District Courts, and “Super Lawyer” award winners.
Thomasina Moore, Director of Appeals for the GAL Program accepted the award from Chris Barry, TaxWatch Director of Communications. “I’m honored to collaborate with these amazing appellate lawyers,” Moore said, “it reminds you the value of expecting the best from people. When I explained what these children needed, some of Florida’s best lawyers stepped right up to help, donating their time and substantial talent so that children they may never know will have a brighter future. It’s incredible.”