Representing abused, abandoned and neglected children in court and the community is a passion and commitment to which Christine Meyer, managing attorney in Jacksonville’s Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office, has devoted her entire career.
“I can’t imagine practicing in any other area of the law,” said Meyer, who started her career as Broward County’s first full-time Guardian ad Litem attorney. Meyer mentors and supervises a legal team of 10 lawyers at the Jacksonville Office, which serves Clay, Duval and Nassau counties. The Jacksonville Office has more than 500 community volunteers and pro bono attorneys.
“The number of attorneys and volunteers we have here, and with more than 180 attorneys in Guardian ad Litem Offices statewide, speaks to the importance the Florida legislature places on this issue for continued funding, as well as the volume of cases and needs in our state,” Meyer said.
As of August, nearly 23,000 children are represented by the office statewide, and more than 1,400 are appointed to the office in the tri-county area. “Yet it is still not enough, as the need for more children keeps increasing. The opioid drug crisis, as well as the lack of affordable housing, has significantly impacted the children we serve every day,” she said.
Each Guardian ad Litem attorney in the Fourth Judicial Circuit manages an average of 75-90 cases annually of 140-180 children, working to achieve statute-driven permanency within 12 months for the child, either being reunified with parents or placed in a permanent arrangement such as adoption.
“We always need more community volunteers and pro bono legal representation, it’s part of the heart of our office and critical to the success of the child’s advocacy,” said Meyer.
The Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office multidisciplinary teams always include a Guardian ad Litem attorney, a child welfare professional, and hopefully, a community volunteer or pro bono attorney if one is available.
There are several ways attorneys can help the Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office, said Meyer.
As a pro bono attorney focusing on a specialized team, such as working only with teens or young adults or with the Defending Best Interests initiative to help with cases on appeal.
Through the Florida Association for Women Lawyers partnership, by providing mentorship opportunities with older youth in foster care as they transition into independence.
As a specialized volunteer lawyer who can offer an area of expertise, such as with probate or civil litigation, for a specific, short-term need.
As a traditional Guardian ad Litem volunteer who gathers facts surrounding a child’s case, finds out the child’s wants and desires and provides the court with unbiased best interests recommendations.
“I take an individualized and collaborative approach for each family and child, using all our available resources, which also can include Early Childhood Courts or the Family Treatment Court program,” said Duval County Circuit Judge Michael Kalil, who presides over the Juvenile Dependency Court in the Fourth Judicial Circuit. “The Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office is an integral advocacy partner who champions the best interests of our community’s most vulnerable children.
“Guardian ad Litem attorneys and volunteers are truly unsung heroes of our community,” he added. “The time and dedication served helping a child through the Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office is incredibly rewarding, not only by being personally satisfying but by achieving better outcomes for the children individually and also for our community as a whole.”
Whether through reunification or adoption, thousands of success stories and outcomes happen each year throughout Florida as a result of extremely hard work from the teamwork between the Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office, judges, community volunteers, family members and adoptive families.
“We celebrate every child who gets reunified with their parent, and everyone in the courtroom applauds the parent in recognition of how much they have overcome in order to be reunited with their child,” Meyer said. “We also have many amazing adoption stories, which are just as wonderful to experience.”
One of the most anticipated events each year for adoptive families is the annual Home for the Holidays event that Judge Kalil presides over each December in the Juvenile Dependency Court.
The multiple-hearing adoption day, which began in 2003 in Duval County, celebrates numerous families who officially adopt a child or siblings for them to be in their permanent home for the holidays.
“Some of these children never had the opportunity of celebrating the holidays before, and this is a wonderful day for them with their new family to start to create new memories and traditions,” said Judge Kalil. “This event has a special place in my heart, and I always look forward to being part of those beautiful moments.”
“We also celebrate afterwards,” said Meyer, “The Guardian ad Litem Office hosts a reception for the new families with Santa and elves. It’s a memorable and fun day for everyone.”
In addition to Home for the Holidays, Judge Kalil also presides over other special adoption day events, such as Home for Halloween and a National Adoption Month event each November.