Terry Thomas: Having children direct their own attorneys could put them in harm’s way

kids in court

I’m writing to voice my opposition to a measure now before the Constitutional Revision Commission: To amend the state constitution to establish the right of all abused, neglected and abandoned children to their own attorneys in dependency court.

After more than 40 years in law enforcement — including 26 as the statewide coordinator of FDLE’s Crimes Against Children Program — I’ve seen too many cases where children and adolescents had their own attorneys, with the result that the dependency court could not adequately protect the child.

And so I see great potential for this measure to harm children, not help them.

Why? Because the truth is that children love their parents, and the vast majority of my child victims — no matter how badly they’d been abused — wanted to go home even if it placed them in danger. I’ve had kids say to me, ‘I love my dad. I just wish he’d stop doing what he’s doing.”

And so when you put an attorney in the midst of this, it’s not in the best interests of kids as far as I’m concerned. When the kids do go home or somewhere else they’re at risk, they often instruct the attorney not to tell the judge. I’ve dealt with attorneys who actually hid kids’ whereabouts while they were in touch with the abusive parents and having them change their stories.

And I know dependency judges who have had the same experience many times.

The truth is that abused children already have access to attorneys. For one thing, the dependency judge can appoint them. For another, the Legislature approved a measure in 2014 to have children with special needs represented by attorneys on a registry; a bill that would incentivize more attorneys to do this pro bono is before the Legislature now.

Above all, the Guardian ad Litem model we already have in Florida law provides children with a three-person team that includes a Best Interest Attorney; a GAL volunteer who advocates for the child in court, school, medical settings and more; and a case advocate manager who knows local resources and helps the volunteer gain access to services for the children.

In short, the Guardian ad Litem Program acts as the judge’s eyes and ears, providing all the information they believe the judge needs to make decisions that are in the child’s best interest.

I have investigated too many child homicides to allow dependent children to take still more risks. Vote NO on Proposal 40, and let the courts do their jobs.


Terry Thomas is a retired special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Guest Author


  • Howard Talenfeld

    January 24, 2018 at 5:25 am

    Although the Guardian ad Litem team provides valuable as often critical information to the Court to help the judge make the right decision concerning what is in the child’s best interest, there is no attorney to confidentially counsel the child on what is happening and the right course to take, to navigate the child through a complex and scary dependency court proceeding while in the custody of the state which offen lasts at lasts between 1 and 3 years or longer, and to ultimately advocate for the child most expeditious release and permanancy, there still is no one to protect the child’s legal interests. Would anyone go into the most important judicial proceeding in their life that can deprive them of their freedom, family, friends, parents and education without an attorney to counsel and protect them until their liberty is returned?

    • Nikki

      January 25, 2018 at 6:22 am

      I have to disagree. On several occasions we have brought children in and the Best Interest Attorney has spoken with children directly regarding the law all while listening to the input of a child. I have watched Best Interest Attorney’s go to a caregivers home and counsel a child. We as a GAL team have worked years of informing the courts of the wishes and desires of the children even when it differs from their best interests. Do you believe a 5 year old is fully competent to the allegations that have caused the removal of the 5 year old and the 12 year old sibling? No. So of course the child will want to go home and will probably express that several times not knowing that (hypothetically) mom is still with her paramour who molested the 12 year old for years. Children love their parents and without a doubt that is always our first intention and that is what the law outlines but you cannot leave those decisions on the shoulders of innocent children who may not have the capacity to understand even in teenage years. The rate of children who come into care with higher level of needs is high in it’s self. What difference is a private attorney who may or may not visit once a year or make phone calls without actually meeting a child they provide counsel too and the GAL who sees first hand the pain, trauma, and the over all big picture that not only provides them with a consistent party to the case but a staff advocate competent in the dependency system and an attorney who provides the most superb legal advice to guide them both?

  • Over it

    January 24, 2018 at 6:43 am

    Gal program didn’t do my child any good.

    • Michael Gagne

      January 28, 2018 at 9:05 pm

      Unfortunately the GAL program is Incredibly underfunded and Ried heavily on volunteers… your retired grandma, school librarian, your basic human with a lot of love, but very little legal experience. They can get things wrong, and that’s a shame.

      But this constitutional measure allows a 6yo to determine what’s in their best interests. Kids who can barely match socks get lawyers who must represent their clients wants… which may conflict with with they need.

      The answer is fully funding the entire Dependency system so everyone is adequately represented and everyone needs are being met.

  • Nancy J. Johnson

    January 24, 2018 at 9:20 am

    Excellent commentary! Guardian ad Litems (GALs) are often the only consistent and reliable adults in the lives of abused, neglected, or abandoned children. They meet with their case children at least once per month and insure the children receive any and all services they are entitled to. And they work hand-in-hand with the GAL Case Advocacy Manager and Best Interest Attorney. Many stay with the same children for years until safe and permanent homes are found. Most importantly, you would be hard-pressed to find a GAL who has not fallen in love with their case children, and love is something they all need. It would be a heart-breaking disservice to Florida’s neglected children if Proposal 40 becomes a Constitutional revision. Please vote “NO!”

    • Sandra Woodworth

      January 24, 2018 at 1:35 pm

      I agree. As a 20 year GAL, it is my experience that the problems occurring within the GAL program such as poor action from attorneys is due to the directive from the Executive leadership in Tallahassee. Those directors need to be replaced with a team that can once again empower these great legal GAL professionals to do their job, not tie their hands.

  • Anna Van De Vusse

    January 24, 2018 at 9:30 am

    Proposal 40 only adds to the burdens this children already face. Let us Volunteer Guardians guard and guide them. Let them be children!

  • LaJuana

    January 24, 2018 at 9:49 am

    As a former foster parent and now Florida GAL, I think He understands the system
    and what it takes to achieve what is in the best interest of Florida’s children.

  • Sandy Pijot

    January 24, 2018 at 9:52 am

    As a GAL I know that children will be afraid to open up to an attorney Only. Don’t pass this Proposal. It is not in the best interest of the child

  • Rhonda Waterstradt

    January 24, 2018 at 10:51 am

    I’m in full agreement. Thanks for speaking up. As a teacher and principal for 34 years and currently a Guardian ad Litem in Brevard County, I understand kids. Children have a right to share their thoughts and wants with me…in fact, I encourage it as my job is to advocate for them. But they don’t always know what they need to become whole, productive adults after dealing with the struggles they’ve experienced in a dysfunctional family. In court I stand side by side with the GAL Best Interest Attorney to present the complete picture to the judge. Unfortunately, we have well-intentioned politicians who clearly don’t see the big picture. Proposal 40 is simply wasteful, unnecessary legislation….

  • Bernard Parker

    January 24, 2018 at 10:56 am

    Excellent commentary. Since Florida statues already provide judges with the option of appointing attorneys for children in certain cases why do we need a constitutional amendment that would basically do the same? Also at present 11,707 children appointed to the Guardian ad Litem program are age 5 or under. (I have two of these.) These children cannot provide meaningful information to an attorney and so the attorney would have to give implied representation. How is this better than the best interest representation provided by the Guardian ad Litem and the best interest attorney? Defeat this proposal and fully fund the Guardian ad Litem program so that they can recruit more volunteers and increase support staff. You can’t tell me that hiring attorneys for over 30,000 children will be less expensive than the trained, volunteer, unpaid, 10,000 strong Guardians ad Litem

  • William Griffin

    January 24, 2018 at 1:59 pm

    In our experience court appointed attorneys for kids barely get to know the kids and usually look to Gals the main continuity and advocate for the child while they are in care in order to gather information to offer an opinion in court. Gals who see the kids minimally once a month, are in contact with the other service providers for the kids in order to understand how to represent the kid. GAL attorneys have the best interest of the kids, have greater experience in dependency and also have GALs input as well as giving GALs guidance in order to advocate for childs best interest.

    Money that would go to additional lawyers would be better served in toward retaining and professionalizing case managers.

  • Jody Riddick

    January 24, 2018 at 3:25 pm

    I am in my third year as a guardian ad litem. I feel I make a difference. Where ever that child goes, I am with him or her. I have the constant support of the GAL team. I am involved with every phase of the child’s life..until they are safe in their environment. I have access to the GAL attorney when needed. Many of my cases have been with children under ten, newborn babies. Vote NO

  • Jennifer Smith

    January 24, 2018 at 5:41 pm

    The Guardian Ad Litem program’s volunteers provide continuous (monthly or more), personal contact with children over time (frequently 2-3 years and more)–something that paid attorneys could never afford to do “pro bono”. At a time when children are at their most vulnerable they need the safety and security of someone who becomes the only constant, trusted adult in their lives–someone who advocates for them in the revolving door of DCF case managers, schools, teachers, foster homes/parents.

    There are so many very young children in the dependency system who are not able to express themselves–they are not even talking yet! Judges depend on the Guardian Ad Litem volunteers to be their “eyes and ears” in a child’s life–the volunteers visit foster homes, schools, day care centers, and incarcerated parents,

    The Guardian Ad Litem volunteers observe any supervised visits with bio parents. They review school, court and medical records. They help to ensure (and find/obtain private funding) that allows foster children to participate in “normal” childhood activities like sports, proms, art, dancing or music lessons, school field trips, summer camps, and other areas of interest expressed by children. Will attorneys take the time to do that as well?

    Judges already appoint attorneys to dependent children who need them. Guardian Ad Litem volunteers can ask older children if they want to appear before the judge at any time–and many actually transport children to the courtroom to ensure that their wishes are heard directly by the judge.

    How could enough funding for attorneys EVER be found and allocated to match the thousands and thousands of volunteer hours provided by the existing Guardian Ad Litem program? The cost differential would be enormous.

    Please vote NO on Proposal 40.

  • barbara parker

    January 24, 2018 at 6:25 pm

    I am a GAL and I know that Children would go back to their parents in a heartbeat and too many cases. I was abused and I never wanted to leave my home. I don’t understand why anyone thinks the children do not have an attorney available to them. I work very closely with the GAL attorney on each case, and where appropriate, the child is brought to court to talk to that attorney and the judge. In the meantime, the child talks to me and convey all the information to the attorney. This proposal would be a disaster and would be unaffordable for the State as well.

  • LJ Gordon

    January 24, 2018 at 9:08 pm

    I am a GAL and have worked to discern and represent the “best interest” for numerous young children over the past five years. In almost all cases, these children desired to be returned to their parents, event though too often they had been neglected, abandoned, and/or abused. A young child lacks the maturity, knowledge, and experience to establish their personal “best interest” and appropriately direct a court appointed attorney. The GAL attorney already works for the “best interest” of the child, so adding another attorney to represent the child is a waste of tax dollars and in reality, may work against the “best interest” of the child. Please vote NO on Proposal 40.

  • Evin Daly

    January 24, 2018 at 10:45 pm

    Mr. Thomas explains exactly – and accurately- how children already have effective and comprehensive legal representation. If you would like to see it in action you’re welcome to visit the Children’s Courthouse most days of the week. It is important to Vote NO to this proposal.
    For more information from Judge Cindy Lederman, the leading judge in Miami’s Child Welfare system and Susan Somers Esq, lead attorney for the GAL program, read this:
    Let’s be clear: Children in Florida’s dependency court already have attorneys http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/op-ed/article196292789.html
    Vote ‘No.’

  • bill

    January 25, 2018 at 6:02 pm

    I was a court appointed guardian ad litem attorney for hundreds of children in Virginia. There is no conflict between such attorneys and the GAL volunteers. We worked hand in hand. In Florida, my experience has been that there can be little or no contact between the child and an attorney. That is not right. I always met outside the courtroom with the child and the parents or other custodians. Murderers are given free legal representation. Shouldn’t the same be accorded to innocent children caught up in a tangled legal system? In Florida, someone needs to beat back the ACLU to allow a child to privately meet with the judge in chambers with the child’s attorney present. It is awful that children can be forced to go through the trauma of testifying in open court especially if they are asked “Do you want to live with Mommy or Daddy?” That should never happen and if the child had their own attorney maybe it would not happen again. By the way, attorneys in Virginia representing children are governed by the same standard of Florida GAL volunteers. What is in the best interest of the child?

  • Hugh Ann Cason-Kelly

    January 26, 2018 at 2:37 pm

    I am totally confused why anyone would want to change the current system for serving Abandoned, Abused and Neglected Children in Florida. The changes proposed would be extravagantly expensive for the state without assuring better service delivery to our dependent children. Also, there seems to be confusion about exactly how specific needs of these children are identified, how services are provided, and about how delivery of those services is monitored to assure all activity is “in the best interest of the child”. It is not an easy task to determine best interest because there are many mitigating issues to address.
    First and foremost is the children’s safety, given that their removal from their home occurred because of abuse, abandonment or neglect by their parents or other caregivers. The Guardian ad Litem volunteer, who is supervised by career professionals, and monitored by qualified program attorneys, provides a level of attention to all facets of the dependent child’s well-being while acting as the eyes and ears for dependency court judges. Their commitment is unparalleled because of the many. many hours these volunteers invest. I fail to see how the same level of concern and service can be provided without the volunteer Guardian ad Litem operating as a team with the program attorneys and Child Advocate Managers who are credentialed specifically to serve dependent children. . Please VOTE NO on Proposal 40. Thank you.

Comments are closed.


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